Religious Freedom and reaping the whirlwind

Everybody wants to be a weatherman. There’s great money to be made in being able to accurately predict the future — and reputation or influence to be won. Especially if you can predict a cataclysm.

There are two narratives circulating, like cyclones circulate (that is to say with great destruction) to explain the current debate about religious freedom in Australia and why it is going so badly (or so it seems) for Christians.

One is that this was always a category five system of extreme destruction — that the same sex marriage debate was a Trojan Horse; a referendum on a host of LGBTIQA+ rights and a larger political agenda. This is what Lyle Shelton and the ACL/Coalition For Marriage/Australian Conservatives argued. Then they lost. And now instead of seeing that they positioned the debate as a referendum such that the winning side has a mandate, they keep pointing to all these flow on debates saying ‘told you so’ and ‘now we need to stop’ — whereas, if their narrative is correct, this agenda is exactly what the majority of Australians signed up for.

I have significant doubts about this narrative — I don’t doubt that there is a political movement committed to securing full equality and particular rights and freedoms for the LGBTIQA+ community (here’s a news story announcing a lobby group committed to just that), I just don’t believe that the Australian public was voting on more than simply the legalisation of same sex marriage in our nation. I’m not suggesting there’s not a relationship between this right and the move for other rights — that would be naive — but it’s the religious community who have made this a zero sum game; especially by failing to see how the postal survey was an opportunity to extend a freedom to others in our community, a pluralist democracy, where free expression of sexuality is essentially religious in nature as it is seen as being essential to human identity and flourishing by a particular community. What did we expect when Christians publicly campaigned against (religious) freedom and then turned around to ask for our freedom to be protected and upheld? How did we expect those we ‘othered’ and fought against, rather than those we loved and co-operated with across our differences in the program of a pluralist democracy, to act when they won? How did we seek to use power? What would we have done for them if we’d won?

Everyone wants to be a prophet. Everybody wants to be a weatherman.

The second narrative is one I’m more sympathetic to, but still disagree with — it’s connected to the first — but it’s the idea that the postal survey wasn’t a ‘slippery slope’ or Trojan horse, but a ‘precipice’, pace Stephen McAlpine, who sees things in more apocalyptic terms — with the notion that the marriage survey reveals a deep commitment to ‘the sexular age’ (a term I like), that brooks no opposition such that religious freedom outside the dominant sexular religion. Here’s what he said in his ‘one year on’ reflection on our headlong rush off the precipice.

“Turns out, the “much to be done” is less to do with vows and cakes and your first dance as a married same sex couple, and more to do with ensuring religion is no longer allowed to get away with its refusal to sign up to the Sexual Revolution.   Clearly that is where attention has been turned in the past twelve months.  Clearly.

Because of course this was always a precipitous matter, never a slippery slope.  And the naysayers, even among the progressive Christian crew, have gone strangely silent on how wrong they have proven to be in their much vaunted public refutation of this.”

I think this account is equally problematic. Certainly, there has been a ‘turn’ to a new battleground. Certainly this wasn’t a slippery slope (the activists campaigning for same sex marriage had previously campaigned for such rights as the overturning of legislation that made homosexuality illegal). Certainly religious freedom has to be part of the conversation for how we navigate life in a post-Christian, pluralist, society — for the good of all… but a narrative that places the blame for this moment we find ourselves in on those agitating for an expansion of rights, at the expense of the religious, rather than a narrative that sees the responsibility for the circumstance we find ourselves in as shared, is incomplete. And perhaps this is why the ‘progressive Christians’ aren’t coming to the party as quickly as their conservative brethren might like? I’ve found those on the progressive side of politics are committed to listening to accounts of systemic injustice — sometimes to the point of paralysis on our part, certainly — and to acknowledging our culpability for that injustice — sometimes to the point of not asking for more privilege, certainly.

I’m not suggesting that religious freedom for those who have a religious framework committed to some sort of ‘natural law’ created by a God is not a competing right; in competition with the modern push to be free from physical ‘nature’ when it comes to our identity. The LGBTIQA+ movement is, in many ways, a move to free oneself from ‘natural law’ in order to express one’s true self — to live embodied lives that reflect our inner desires and values whether on gender or sexuality. Whatever the non-religious, or non-Christian, impulse for the definition of marriage that operated for the majority of human history, and still operates in the majority of the world today, it’s tied to biological fact, rather than our individualised or tribal pursuit of authentic identity. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t complex interplays between biology, desire, and experience — the reality of intersex, and the component of gender dysphoria and sexual attraction that appears to happen at the level of the structure or operation of the brain are also realities that make living out ‘nature’ something that requires an admission of tension and complexity (and requires religious believers to grapple with that complexity). Those committed to a physical, biological, or divine account of a certain sort of nature — brute physical fact — when it comes to sexuality and gender are outside a newly emerging orthodoxy — and this includes most versions of the major monotheistic religions of the world. To continue to hold this position freely, seems to be the subject of a contest of rights. A contest we’re not well equipped to have in our public conversation. What I’m suggesting is that accounts of the current conflict that do not acknowledge the culpability of Christian voices in this debate, and grapple with a way forward, are a guaranteed way for us to reap the whirlwind as it were — to make it even more difficult to have such a conversation.

There was an op-ed in the Fairfax family of publications this week from the deputy dean of education at Alphacrucis College carrying the warning — a storm warning at that — that to target Christian schools and restrict their freedom would be politically diabolical; that this would lead to Labor reaping the whirlwind (a phrase from Hosea 8), and they should act according to their political self-interest, rather than according to what is right and good for their constituents. In short, that they should act for the good of their Christian constituents because we’re a powerful voting block too…

“What goes on in Australian religious schools, after all, affects several million Australians.  Including grannies and siblings, this is a voter base of about four million  out of a voting population of 13 million. They are hard to mobilise and slow to awaken. But perish that legislator who startles them, with rash actions, from the long slumber of our fat peacetime. They might reap the whirlwind.”

This is an interesting approach to the conversation and one that continues the Hungry, Hungry Hippoes zero-sum game that has got us into this mess of competing rights in the first place.

Every man and his blog (or woman and her blog, but that isn’t as punny) wants to be a weather man. A long range forecaster. We all want to say ‘I told you so’ and ram current events through our paradigm. But hey. I predicted this too. This state of affairs. It’s up to all of us, when the storm is hitting, to ponder which account is actually going to help us predict its movement, and the future. My account, my reason for opposing the postal survey and for not voting was that to vote against the religious freedom of others would come back to bite us when it came to seeking our own freedoms. It wasn’t ‘they’re out to get us’ but ‘what happens to us if we’re perceived as being out to get them’? Why an ‘us and them’ at all rather than a commitment to figuring out a broader ‘us’… a commons where we might operate together in disagreement and charity?

A commitment to the idea that the best possible playing field for shared life — the best commons — here in Australia is a generous pluralism not a theocracy means a deep commitment to religious freedom; but it means that commitment also has to be extended to those who are seeking freedom not for explicitly religious reasons, but from categories we religious people recognise as religious. I don’t want Australia to be a Christian nation; I don’t think that’s possible — I do want the church to be able to operate as an expression of the Kingdom of God, or the ‘city of God’ within our polis though. And here’s my bold prediction of the current climate: the religious freedom debate, as it is currently framed, is destined to fail unless we, the church, repent for restricting the religious freedom of others (and by this I don’t mean other explicitly religious people), and unless we work to specifically uphold and defend those freedoms in the commons so that we can hold our own views in the commons, not just in private.

Currently, when it comes to religious freedom, we religious people are reaping the whirlwind of our own making; it’s time to sow something different, or be wiped out by the coming storm.

It’s time to consider that ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ should shape how we Christians approach politics; that this means gently speaking from conviction about what is good and true, hoping to have the freedom to live out that vision of what is good and true, and extending the space in our society for others to do the same. Maybe it’s time to find or cultivate shared spaces for hospitality and love of the other, where we can talk through these competing visions with our neighbours, not just to appear to clamour for our own rights at their expense — or our right to exclude others as though their visions of the good life are never up for conversation.

Review: A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett

It’s very rare that a book offers both sides of an issue with a generous and balanced perspective, rarer still that the balanced perspective comes from one individual who graciously seeks to represent each position, while vulnerably sharing their journey from one position to the other. A War Of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett is such a book, and his is a timely voice on sexuality, more than that, his voice is a voice worth hearing on the Gospel and what it means to be human. For David, this war of loves was an arms race — a battle to determine if satisfaction could be found in the arms of a saviour, or a lover. His account of being pursued and loved by Jesus, even while pursuing meaning and satisfaction in romance is

David, a celibate gay Christian, shares his ‘unexpected story’ of coming to meet, love, and worship Jesus in a way that re-orders his loves, especially his sexual desire. It’s unexpected in many ways, not least of which that he recounts moving from student politics and activism for LGBTIQA+ rights, to pursuing celibacy and advocating for the place of celibate gay people in the church, and in the gay community. It’s unexpected because he recounts his transition from hostile to Christianity, and Jesus, to studying theology in Oxford, training to preach the Gospel and engage richly in communicating the truths he has come to adore. It’s unexpected because his account is, frankly, miraculous — and for many reformed evangelical types the first half of the book, recounting this part of his journey, will present robust theological challenges around the work of the Spirit, and how revelation works.

A War of Loves is profoundly insightful in many ways. David’s stirring, vulnerable, account of his sexuality, through his school years, through relationships, and as his heart was captured by God provides not just a plausibility structure for others making a journey from finding their identity in sex to finding their identity in Jesus (more on the identity thing later), but a unique perspective on how members of the gay community see and experience the church from the outside as a potential barrier to knowing and loving God.

David’s account of his journey begins in high school, where he attended a church school and, as his sexuality became more apparent, his perspective on Christians and Jesus were formed in opposition; if the church stood against his desires then both it, and the God it claimed to represent, were at war with him. Because David writes from the heart, and presents such a coherent account of his emotional and rational state in these progressions through stages in his narrative this ‘war’ is not easy to dismiss; Christian readers are presented with a rare insight into the way our politics interferes with our pastoring and preaching… Too often the political stance we Christians take on an issue presents a barrier to core business; placing walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — and David’s account, though he was equally political is a shot across these bows.

Perhaps the other powerful aspect of David’s account of his pre-conversion years is his description of the inner war being fought at the same time; our reasonably unsophisticated account of human behaviour and identity, in part a product of the us/them distinction means we often fail to consider the experience of people within the LGBTIQA+ community who are all too aware their experiences fall ‘outside’ the cultural norm (even if the pendulum is swinging). David describes the journey he went through to understand his sexual desires, and where they came from:

“A war developed in me about how to understand this part of my identity. The belief that we’re all born this way wasn’t the whole story. I was more confused than ever.”

And then describes coming out to his mother — then an agnostic — but herself on the path to meeting Jesus, in a way that highlights that life for those in sexual minorities isn’t all about smashing Christians and their institutions into the ground…

“She reached over, wrapped me in her arms, and wept. I’ll never forget the feeling of the leather seats, her wet tears on my clothing. And in that moment, I felt peace—real peace—for the first time in years, for the first time since I’d discovered I was gay. And I somehow knew that her tears weren’t about her at all; they were about me. She knew how much harder my life would be as a gay man.”

This is the experiential and emotional context where any Christian politicking is felt and interpreted by ‘the other’… amidst the turmoil of developing his sense of self in the highly contested, or hostile, environment of his school, David does mention a couple of experiences of love from Christians that stood out, transcending the ‘us/them’ divide. He recounts the actions of a teacher who committed to answering all his questions and objections about Christianity — beyond simply the question of his sexuality. This teacher patiently and faithfully persisted in dialogue — including listening…

“It was too evident that he cared. It was the first time I’d felt loved by a Christian. He took each question seriously and wrote back with his opinion.”

David’s journey from paganism to Pentecostalism is, frankly, miraculous. Any movement from the worship of something or someone other than God, and the pleasures this world offers, to life with God for eternity is miraculous, and too often our accounts of such journeys are sanitised; David’s path offers no such luxury. It cannot be flattened or hollowed out of divine activity; I admit, as a non-pentecostal, I was much more comfortable with David’s growing love for hearing the voice of God through the Scriptures than in stories of his relatives prophesying about his future conversion, and even a tarot card reader predicting he would end up as a ‘child of the light’, and yet, without such direct intervention there is little doubt his voice would be heard the way it is. His path through this ‘war’ to Jesus is not the only way; there are other soldiers who have charted different, but no less miraculous paths, and yet, his passionate call to whole hearted worship is prophetic not just for others in the gay community, but for a church that is all to often conscripted to fight a ‘culture war’ not a ‘war of loves’ — and for a church that all too often lacks the imagination to properly empathise with our neighbours rather than seeing them as ‘other.’ His is a clarion call for ongoing reformation in our churches.

“God wants all people everywhere to turn from their ways in order to know him. He wants us all to adopt an entirely different view of meaning, transcendence, and worship. Can you imagine how healing it would be for the church to acknowledge that it is just as broken and sinful as the gay community? Can you imagine the power in store if Christians were to humbly repent of hypocrisy before expecting others to repent?”

David’s story reveals a deep fault line in the church in our ability to imagine that love for God might possibly supplant our own idolatrous view of eros — sex, and marriage, and our own heteronormative assumptions about ‘identity’ and what it means to be human in Christ. And here’s where David provides an explicit challenge to an internal conflict the church is taking, and one where we’ve tended to buy in to the ‘identity politics’ or ‘identity war’ thinking of the prevailing culture, providing thin theological justifications (though often deeply held, and with pastoral concern). There is a war raging about how appropriate it is for Christians who are same sex attracted to use the label ‘gay’ — it’s not a new conflict, but the lines have been more clearly drawn recently around the Nashville Statement and in a debate around a conference in the United States called Revoice, which provided a platform for those occupying the ‘Side B’ position in the conversation; a position David holds, along with the likes of Wes Hill.

“As a gay celibate Christian, I recognize that Christ is my ultimate identity; gay and celibate come second. My identity is first and foremost in Christ, but those other two descriptors tell the redemptive story of God’s grace in my life.”

Identity is a thin concept, a largely modern obsession that must be imported into our theological frameworks with great care; there is no doubt that the answer to the questions ‘who am I’ or ‘what does it mean to be a person’ are important, and that there is a theological account that supplies the important answers; but much of modern ‘identity’ is a constructed concept emerging as the concept of the ‘givenness’ of our humanity, from God, has been evacuating the western framework. As I mentioned in a previous post, the obsession with identity — the projection of our true, inner self — our ‘id’ — into the external reality of our lives, and the idea that we answer these important questions from within, rather than looking to our relationships, and a creator, to supply them, this obsession is a very novel, western idea. It’s perhaps the case that David concedes too much ground to this modern obsession in order to justify his self-description. Early in the debate about terminology, Ron Belgau from Spiritual Friendship, a site run by celibate, gay, Christians, made the point that those who wish to make big claims about ‘identity’ are operating as though the word ‘gay’ is an ‘ontological’ marker — a statement about one’s being, where those who tend to use it (quite carefully) are not making ‘ontological claims’ (about their ‘being’) but ‘phenomenological’ claims (about their experience of life in the world, and about more than simply sexual activity). These are big philosophical words — and the fact that they are confusing, and that even people who are careful about the use of terms might not be aware of these dimensions probably means that words are much less ‘prescriptive’ than those in the ‘ontological’/identity camp might like to acknowledge (there’s a classic modernist v post-modernist division operating behind the sort of theory of words at play here too). It is, frankly, quite ridiculous to attempt to make the case that one position on the use of the label ‘gay’ has the definitive, God-ordained, view if ‘identity’ is such a nebulous, modern, ‘secular age’ connotation; if it is largely a tool for the sort of fragmented ‘expressive individualism’ that has somehow given rise to ‘identity politics’; and if the very nature of language, and how we use it and understand it, is also not able to be settled. People within the Christian community will just continue speaking past one another — and very rarely think about speaking to the gay community outside the church.

Biblically, the ground is much safer if we acknowledge that the ‘image’ we present to the world is fundamentally formed by what it is we worship — the God who made us in his image, and forms us by his Spirit, or the images we make, that then de-form us.

This is where David’s theological framework sings; his ‘war of loves’ is the Augustinian idea of the ordering of our heart and our loves via that which we make ultimate; that which we worship; that love that defines who we are. To take the label ‘gay’ is not, and should not be heart to be, a claim that homosexual sexual activity is the defining feature of a person’s existence or identity, especially when it is so carefully qualified; to suggest otherwise is to judge a person using categories and criteria that come from a world that denies this fundamental aspect of our being (that we are worshippers), and that our identity is ultimately given by the creator. To obsess about ‘identity markers’ — like those who write statements — is ultimately more useful as a political tool to create ‘us’ or ‘them’ than to create conversations and plausible pathways for people from the gay community to discover Jesus, and through him, God’s life-altering love. His use of the label gay is, to some extent, about the re-ordering of his identity around Jesus and the cascading effect that had on his sexual attraction, but it is also about building common ground for Gospel conversations with LGBTIQA+ people.

“Identifying with others in the LGBTQI world can open doors to engage people who need to hear about Christ. It can also give us the chance to speak honestly against the horrible ways Christians have often treated the gay community.”

David’s heart is to see people know this love as he does, and his framework is imaginative and grounded in his own, very real, experience. He asks the questions one can only fantasise about the church having asked before taking any political stances on issues surrounding the LGBTIQA+ community. He is prepared to acknowledge goodness and beauty — the image of God — at work in the achievements of the gay rights movements (law reforms that limit violent crimes against members of minority groups, for example, that uphold the God-given dignity of all people), so long as we keep the real call of God on our lives — and sexuality (that is, for all of us) front and centre.

“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness. We need to stand for a different way to live in the gay community, and welcome others from that community into the church to receive Jesus’ love, without denying so many of the goods won through the gay rights movement.”

He’s even prepared to challenge us to consider what might be redeemed within gay relationships, should a couple turn to Jesus — to have us asking better questions about what we might do to help others ‘win the war’ and not just find love in Jesus, but to have all their loves transformed by his love.

“There may be aspects of gay relationships or unions that Christians should learn to accept and recognize, such as the bond of friendship and the self-sacrificial love I have seen in many of my friends’ unions. Christianity has room for affirming so much of the good and beautiful there, while still keeping traditional views of sexual expression and love. For those in gay relationships or marriages who bravely repent of sexual sin, the solution is anything but simple. It takes time, and many answers are going to be messy. Gay couples often have children and become a family unit. What is their call? Easy answers break down very quickly without the Spirit’s leading and discernment.”

This is an important book, and David joins a growing list of faithful, same sex attracted, voices who have stepped back from our cultural consumption of the ‘sexuality is your identity’ Kool-Aid, to offer us a real path to the one who provides true satisfaction. These men and women are like the desert fathers of the third century who disconnected from the cultural stream they belonged to in order to discern where false worship had taken hold, in order to call the church back to the one who gives living water. The Lord Jesus.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — John 4:13-14

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It’ll be all white in the end: on hope and love in these ‘last days’

The fires of our Christian persecution complex are being stoked this week by those who warned as all (and boy, did they tell us) that the same sex marriage vote was about more than marriage.

These fires are burning brighter with the news that the magazine, White, will be shuttering after an activist campaign saw advertisers desert their platform because the owners, a Christian couple, adopted an editorial policy consistent with their personal views.

It was a year this week since the postal survey results were announced; and the doomsday prophets have formed a line behind Lyle Shelton to announce that they ‘told us so’, because this was never just about marriage, and now we have a bona fide story of martyrdom. Here. On our shores. It’s not just bakers in the UK. There’s nothing I like more than reading think pieces beating that same ‘told you so’ drum as a ‘hot take’ on current events. So here’s mine.

I’m sure the couple in question are lovely, faithful, people – I’m sure they’ve been caught up in the modern ethical minefield, a minefield produced by the rapid shifting of the ground beneath our feet. I’m sure that you can draw a straight line between the existence of same sex marriage and the position they find themselves in. I’m sure they agonised about their editorial policy, and whether to go public in the face of pressure. I’m sure their position has caused them real pain. I’m sad for them, it seems tragic to watch the business they spent years building disintegrate. I’m not sure how I’d feel about the amount of free publicity they’ll now receive, because they’re a political football, coming after this commercial decision.

I’m not sure it’s the editorial policy I’d take, even though I share their views on the definition of marriage. I’m not sure it represents a hospitable or generous pluralism; but it is absolutely their call to make — what they do with their platform, and what they promote. I’m equally sure, that at this point, they aren’t facing legal consequences for the position they took.

Their experience is not an experience that religious freedom laws would protect while we also operate in a free market (and to be honest, the free market is a bigger idol than sexuality in our culture, and it’s one where most Christians are happy to participate in the temples and cultic practices of our economy, where we aren’t when it comes to the cult of sexuality, sexual identity, and expressive individualism). Exactly the same principles that give this couple the right to hold on to, and act according to their convictions — the same religious freedom, or freedom of speech, give rise to the rights of those who put pressure on their advertisers to line up with their own convictions. It seems certain that some of the ‘free speech’ directed at this couple was hateful, and crossed a line, into threats and bullying — and yet, what they’re experiencing is the cost of doing business in a fractured, pluralist, world — where each side plays a zero sum game. They were, perhaps, naive to think they could play the game in any other way — that they could continue operating according to a now obsolete status quo — that they could ignore the hashtag campaign and that it would go away. It seems to me they had three zero sum options — ‘capitulate,’ close down, or pitch for financial support from institutions and businesses who share their values (and so become a pawn in the ideologically driven culture war). If 40% of Aussies share the definition of marriage of these editors, including the religious establishment, we churches could put our money where our mouths are and take out advertising space. We could make this magazine part of our strategy for burnishing and promoting traditional ‘white’ weddings between a man and a woman so that they shine brightly among the alternatives. But we won’t. Because we have no imagination — and we prefer the alternative of sitting on the sidelines, proclaiming ourselves prophets, and distancing ourselves more and more from the hearts and minds of the average Aussie punter while participating in the culture wars. I suspect there’s a fourth — the option of hospitality, where they made their views known, consistently and editorially, but adopted an inclusive editorial policy as an act of generous pluralism that refused the ‘zero sum’ options on the table.

We’re quick to say ‘told you so’ and slow to say ‘tell you what’ — we offer no alternative vision, just an apocalypse — and we have learned nothing from the apocalyptic moments of the last few years — like the Coopers’ Brewery fiasco — when it comes to shaping our public posture. As I’ve often pointed out in these posts, the word ‘apocalypse’ really just means ‘revelation.’ And so we, again, are having not just the state of the world revealed — but the ‘hope-less’ state of the church and our engagement with the world around us.

While some see the legalisation of same sex marriage as a ‘precipice’ that we jumped from, and we’re now plummeting off wondering if we packed a parachute, I’m more inclined to challenge that narrative on two fronts — firstly, the political debate was about the political reality, so it was really about marriage — and the result of the postal survey and subsequent legalisation of same sex marriage only impacts this magazine decision because it introduced same sex weddings (and thus, a new market in the wedding industry), which is explicitly the same thing the political campaign was about. And secondly, politics is downstream from culture — and the cultural horse bolted on this issue long before the postal survey. This moment was coming with the cultural winds that saw most commercial interests in Australia line up behind the ‘yes’ vote, because before it was a political reality the hearts and minds of the average Aussie were won by the narrative of progress and equality. There’s no precipice, the marriage vote was the last domino to fall in a long line of other legal issues (that, in honesty, did need to fall — like the criminalisation of homosexuality, and the ‘gay panic’ defence for killing somebody if you thought they were gay and trying to have their way with you).

This, incidentally, is why the official ‘no’ campaign did us a terrible disservice in making it about consequences and not at all about anything positive about traditional marriage and why we’d want to keep it as a social and cultural good, and keep it exclusively for heterosexual couples. Perhaps they knew that would be an impossible sell…

So here’s a hope-full suggestion.

It’s time we Christians poured our effort into showing why our vision of marriage — God’s vision — is compelling, and not just for straight people. It’s compelling because marriage is a ‘created thing’ that reveals something about God and his love, and ultimately about his plans and love for us.

It’s time we realised that in the era of the Royal Commission, and in the wake of not just the postal survey but years of the gay community in Australia campaigning against unjust laws that were justified as ‘Judeo-Christian’ — we have no social capital.

If we’re going to burn actual capital it’s time to stop spending it trying to prop up a status quo that no longer exists; we should spend it first in making recompense for those times our institutions have failed, then we should devote our significant human and social capital to positive and hopeful contributions to the public conversation.

We should throw our weight — in volunteer hours, energy, attention, and dollar terms — into improving the lot of our LGBTIQA+ neighbours, in anti-bullying campaigns, in creating safe spaces where they can explore and develop their identity in conversation with Christians rather than across picket lines or ideological boundaries, we should spend time listening to minority voices in our community (and in our churches). This would start rebuilding some of the capital we’ve done our best to pour into the toilet, one $1 million donation to the ‘no campaign,’ or campaign against bullying programs, or letter about the right to expel gay kids and fire gay teachers at a time (not that it started with any of these).

We should invest capital in telling stories of our own — stories about marriage and what it means — not about why others are wrong, but about why God’s way is good, true, and beautiful. We should realise that making media — whether online, in print, or on television — comes at a cost; a cost proportionate with how beautiful it is. And we should start investing in a long term campaign for hearts and minds. For many years the church was a significant part of ‘the wedding industry’ in Australia; we’ve lost our monopoly, but it still raises revenue for many churches (and ministers). We could direct a proportion of that income to promoting marriage, and having good material to distribute when preparing a couple for marriage seems a no brained. White looked like it had a cracking aesthetic. We should back it; perhaps to model an inclusive conversation about love and marriage, funded by Christians, or perhaps as an ideological contribution to the public conversation funded by Christians.

We should stop writing prophetic, apocalyptic, think-pieces that offer no solutions, only commentary — and bad commentary at that — and start turning to the pages of our own divinely inspired apocalyptic text — a text all about what life looks like for faithful witnesses of king Jesus, the bridegroom, in the world that executed him on a device designed to bring maximum public humiliation. A text about our hope in the ruins. A text about a white wedding. The wedding of the lamb, whose bride is the church (Ephesians 5).

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.” — Revelation 19:6-8

We should stop saying ‘I told you so’ — stop feeling hopeless and aggrieved — stop playing the victim — stop being doomsday prophets with no map for turning back — and start living as the hopeful bride of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Dressed in white.

Our hope does not rest in a redirection of the public narrative, or a return to ‘Christian values’ — our hope doesn’t rest in religious freedom, or our unfettered access to the free market on a level playing field. Our hope doesn’t rest in marriage here and now. This future with Jesus is our hope. Nobody in this world can stifle it. It’s time that hope re-captured our hearts and imaginations (and that we spent less time worrying whether other people think we’re pretty enough).

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Friendship and Redemption in Hell’s Kitchen: Daredevil, Job, and Jesus

“Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
    though I call for help, there is no justice.
He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
    he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
He has stripped me of my honour
    and removed the crown from my head.
 He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
    he uproots my hope like a tree.” — Job 19:7-10

The writers of Daredevil sure know their theology.

In season 1, Matt ‘Daredevil’ Murdoch went toe-to-toe with Wilson ‘Kingpin’ Fisk with both initially identifying themselves as the ‘good samaritan’ — reaching out to help the beaten and bloodied citizens of Hell’s Kitchen out of a ditch… only for Kingpin to end up declaring himself the ‘man of malicious intent’ (identifying with the characters in Jesus’ famous parable who put the poor, bloodied, citizen in a ditch, before the good samaritan came by). Plenty of people ‘generalise’ the figure of the Good Samaritan, as a picture of the ‘good neighbour’ — the sort of heroic person we’re all called to be, but this heroic figure who does what the religious leaders of Israel can’t, or won’t do is the archetypal good neighbour in Luke’s Gospel — a Christ figure; a picture of the despised outsider who pulls broken humans out of the ditch to restore them… This was pretty sophisticated stuff identifying Matt Murdoch with a certain messianic vision – superheroes are often thinly veiled Jesus figures, with Daredevil the veil is essentially transparent.

In season 2, Daredevil identified himself with the ‘suffering servant’ — taking the pain and suffering of his people on his own shoulders; sacrificing and suffering to deliver his people, believing there was some good in them, where The Punisher and the sinister ‘The Hand’ were more hellbent on slaughter. Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is another messianic/Christ figure. Daredevil has consistently been Christlike in his Netflix iteration — right up to his apparent ‘victorious’ sacrificial death on behalf of his team, and the city, in The Defenders.

This is the opening image of season 3 — where a cross visually resolves itself into Matt’s cruciform body, emerging from flames, through water, and back into the land of the living. Matt has been through his own personal crucifixion. Death. Hell. Resurrection. But has he kept his soul? That’s in many ways, the driving question behind the narrative in this season.

Season 3 of Daredevil is every bit as theologically rich as the first two outings, while there’s a fascinating problem with a show being both deliberately theologically astute, and having a messianic protagonist who occupies the place of Jesus in the narrative (who can’t turn to Jesus to understand God’s character and plan)… this season links Matt to the Old Testament character of Job, in order to consider suffering, the question of God’s apparent absence, and the place of friendship.

Across three seasons Daredevil invites us to connect Matt Murdock, and so, by extension, Jesus, with the Good Samaritan, the Suffering Servant, and now Job. This is a rich reading of the narrative unity of the Bible — in fact, it’s cutting edge Old Testament scholarship to see a connection between Job and Isaiah’s servant — and if the writers aren’t making that connection deliberately, they are certainly providing rich fodder for viewers to explore how the Bible holds together… so long as Matt manages not to lose his soul. 

Old Testament academic (and now faculty member here in Brisbane, who, disclosure, is also a friend and member of my church), Dr Doug Green, gave a series of guest lectures in Brisbane while I was at college where he proposed a link between Job and Isaiah’s suffering servant (I wrote his lecture up here). He points out several linguistic links between the portrayal of both the Servant, Job, and righteous, God-fearing, Israelites in exile — those who shared the fate of disobedient Israel, and suffered, while still being faithful. He also makes the case that Job’s restoration is framed as a ‘return from exile’ — a resurrection. Job, and the suffering servant, become the figure who will lead Israel out of exile from God — death — and into life. A shared resurrection. The Good Samaritan is this sort of figure too — if the person in the ditch is also exiled Israel. In his lecture notes (that he provided, which were received in thanks) Doug says:

“Just as the Suffering Servant points forward to the intercessory – and more deeply, the atoning work of Christ – the same is true for Job. And because of this parallel to the Suffering Servant, as we see Job praying for his friends, we get a faint picture of Christ’s intercession on our behalf. In fact, Job’s prayer on behalf of his friends finds an echo in Jesus’s prayer for those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).”

“…we should not interpret Job as a stand-alone piece functioning as a sourcebook for theological reflection on the general problem of human suffering. Instead it should be interpreted in close connection to Israel’s covenantal history. Combine this with the numerous connections to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, and that inclines me to understand Job (the character) as a righteous Israelite who experiences suffering (a metaphor for exile) but is brought out the other side to experience a double blessing (a picture of the end of Exile and the Age to Come). And ultimately this experience of inexplicable suffering in some way makes him fit to function as an intercessor (or mediator) for those who are the object of God’s anger…

… this intertextual and prophetic reading of Job as Suffering Servant allows us to at last draw a connection between Job and the eschatological suffering Servant, Jesus Christ (and ultimately to Christ’s Suffering people). It allows us to go back and read it as a pre-told story of Christ – the truly righteous and blameless one who suffers “unfairly,” as it were.”

This framework makes Daredevil‘s theological arc, across three seasons, particularly rich, and yet, having Matt operate as the Jesus-figure, participating in an essentially Christ-less Christianity, in the story creates a mind-bending paradox. There are plenty of crucifixes on display around the place, so it’s not that Daredevil invites us, visually speaking, to ignore the place of Jesus in Christian practice, but he is curiously absent from the overt displays of religion — he’s not mentioned in Father Lantom’s homily, he’s absent in Matt’s musings about the place of suffering for the righteous, and, in many ways, he’s absent from Matt’s messianic vision — beyond bearing the suffering of the innocent while punishing (though not executing) the redeemable guilty. Matt, as ‘the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ doesn’t embody the cruciform pattern of Jesus life — though Matt the lawyer, the Matt who looks for non-violent solutions and justice, is perhaps closer to the mark.

When we’re tackling questions of theodicy — God’s relationship to suffering, evil, and violence, in the real world — you just can’t do it without appealing to God’s self-revelation in Jesus; Daredevil’s answer is profoundly theocentric (particularly centered on God the father) and anthropocentric (particularly centered on humanity’s position with regards to evil and suffering). Jesus, in his full divinity and full humanity holds those two aspects of any answer to the question in tension. He’s more than just ‘God’s soldier’ acting in suffering, in the cross, God himself suffers. What Daredevil is good at, so long as we recognise the big answer to the big question of suffering involves this tension, is focusing on the humanity of suffering — and how Jesus is an archetypal sufferer. The servant. The Samaritan. Job. Daredevil. They are all ‘types’ that provide anticipation or echoes of the human life of Jesus. It’s legitimate for us to ask why suffering and evil happen, and where justice will be found if God appears to be stepping back — questions Daredevil explores — but, these questions are profoundly answered in the life of Jesus. The experience of Job, and righteous Israelites suffering in exile (the suffering servant), anticipate the suffering of Jesus.

Job is not just an account of suffering — but of exile from God, and restoration. It’s not just a theodicy, but is specifically connected to the suffering of the righteous. It’s legitimate for us to ask why the righteous suffer — as Matt does… but we have to consider that none of us can claim the righteousness of Job. But on with the show… which is also most rewarding if it’s not just about suffering — but about whether Matt is able to function as a hero while he is in exile from God.

At season’s opening, Matt has lost his mojo — more specifically, his powers that he saw as part of God’s calling, what made him a ‘soldier’ for God; capable of delivering justice, opposing evil, facing death, and helping the residents of Hell’s Kitchen out of their ditch. His loss of these abilities, and questions about what happened to Elektra in The Defenders’ finale, sets up a conversation with the nun looking after him in his convalescence (another Good Samaritan; though it turns out this nun has significant vested interests in his wellbeing, both spiritual and physical). Matt frames his crisis as ‘finally understanding’ where he stands with God. And he launches into a retelling of Job with himself as the ‘telos’ of the narrative; the one Job’s experiences point to… he is a new, and different, Job.

“The book of Job. The story of God’s perfect servant Job, who prayed every day at dawn with his knees on the ground and his face in the dirt. Slaughtered ten goats. One for each of his children, and burned them at the altar in God’s honour. Of all God’s soldiers, Job, he was the most loyal.

Sister: I know the story Matthew.

Matt: Well, then, you know what happens next. God murdered all ten of his children in cold blood, scorched every inch of Job’s land, lashed at his body until his skin was covered in bloody welts. God rained shit and misery on the life of his most perfect servant, and still, Job would not curse him. You know what I realised. Job was a pussy…

See. That was me sister. I suffered willingly. I gave my sweat and blood and skin without complaint, because I truly believed I was God’s soldier. I don’t any more. I am what I do in the dark now. I bleed only for myself… I’d rather die as the devil than live as Matt Murdoch.”

Matt has lost his connection to God; he’s now explicitly not a Christ figure… or at least, he bleeds ‘for himself’ and not for God… but somehow still wants to heroically bleed for others. He is not God’s ‘suffering servant’… He is not Job; or he is, but a different kind of Job. A Job who can’t fathom God’s plan and so, in his suffering, in God’s apparent absence — in exile — Matt turns his back on God… or tries to.

In the story of Job, Job is visited by a bunch of friends who try to explain Job’s suffering. Friends who visit him in his misery, and, rather than being a comfort, pile on more misery… mostly by giving horrible advice. Job’s friends speak as ‘wise’ voices from the nations around Israel… all except Elihu; who speaks with the pious, naive, voice of an Israelite who claims to speak for God. These friends seek to uphold God’s goodness, and blame Job… while Job defends his righteousness. Job is ultimately vindicated by God, he is a ‘righteous sufferer’ — a ‘suffering servant’. He is not suffering because he did something wrong. God has not abandoned him. And yet… he suffers.

Where Job, for the most part, is devastated, bemused, and conflicted by his suffering — and afflicted by his friends — while remaining confident of God’s goodness even in suffering, Matt goes another way, losing confidence with God… and where Job’s friends are useless in guiding him to a right way of understanding his suffering, Matt’s friends are redemptive and useful. And it’s his friends and their relentless presence with him in his suffering — and their good advice — that chart the path to redemption; in their faithfulness to Matt, they start to taste redemption for themselves.

The central moral dilemma in this season is the question of what should happen to Kingpin. There’s lots to this season around the development of a foe for Daredevil — Bullseye — who, incidentally, is the only character to don the red leather suit in this season — and there’s the thread around the mysterious nun and her interest in Matt… but Matt’s real dilemma isn’t how to take down Bullseye, or how to deal with the secrecy around this nun; it’s whether to stray from the path of righteousness; to truly enter the darkness.

In an interaction Karen Page has with Father Lantom while taking refuge in the church building, Father Lantom, Matt’s priest, articulates Matt’s theological vision — “whatever it is that you’ve done, or haven’t done, it can still be redeemed” — Karen says “I’m not so sure I believe that.” As Matt embraces the darkness he tries to push his friends away — he isolates himself from their counsel — like most of us do with our wise friends, or even that internal voice that says ‘stop’ as we embrace sin… he has decided to kill Kingpin, and doesn’t want to be told otherwise. He says he’s pushing them away in order to protect them from what he might become, to keep them ‘innocent’… While Karen and Foggy Nelson, Matt’s two friends, are initially convinced that Matt’s vigilante justice is not the answer, and that he should go ‘through the system,’ Karen starts to think that Matt should kill Kingpin. But Foggy… Foggy knows what straying from the path of righteousness would do to Matt’s soul — and, what it would do to their friendship as a result. His friends are true friends in the face of suffering — they won’t let him go, even when he tries to push them away, they are determined to be there for him, and to lead him out of darkness into the light — not just because he depends on that, but because their friendships do. His friends are faithful.

Foggy: Matt’s Matt because he believes that everyone deserves a shot at redemption.
Karen: Except Fisk.
Foggy: Everyone. It’s a Catholic thing. That’s why he doesn’t kill people. If he crosses that line Matt will never be able to forgive himself.
And being around us will just remind him of who he was and what he’s done.
Karen: Yeah, we’d really lose him, wouldn’t we? — Forever, this time.

From this point, Matt’s friends are relentless in their counsel that this would be disastrous; profoundly because it would represent him truly abandoning God, and his claims to be a righteous, suffering servant… for Matt to kill Fisk would represent his becoming Fisk. The visuals throughout this series on this note, where Fisk is presented in white (and as obsessed with a particular white artwork) and as a ‘warrior of the light’ — operating under 24/7 scrutiny as an FBI informant, while Matt dons the black, and occupies the shadows, are compelling. The tension in the narrative, shaping Matt’s decision, is the question ‘is there anything ‘white’ in Fisk? Is there anything that can be redeemed? And once he decides that there is, he can’t kill him — and in this, Matt finds his own redemption.

Matt’s showdown with Fisk is his apocalypse — it reveals who he truly is, and where God really is in suffering — that God is at work in redemption, forgiveness, and friendship. Where he has Fisk truly at his mercy, in that crucible moment, he stays his hand.

God knows I want to, but you don’t get to destroy who I am.

From this moment on the tension in the series is resolved; it’s the denouement, much like the epilogue at the end of the book of Job. Matt is restored. His relationships are mended. His rediscovery of his faith — his compass — doesn’t just put him back on the path of light, but Karen and Foggy are now linked with him again, sharing in the light and life of Matt’s discovery. He returns to the light. Bloodied. But restored. Truly resurrected. He has listened to his wise friends — and in his restoration, his redemption, they are all redeemed. They all discover the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Much like Job ends up making sacrifices to restore himself and his friends to relationship with the life-giving God. And much like Jesus, the suffering servant, offers himself as a sacrifice to restore us to life and relationship with God and one another…

Matt connects his suffering to the moment that made him — the moment he was blinded as a child. There’s still no Jesus explicitly found in his theodicy, but there is the answer Job receives from God amidst his questions; that God is the artist and architect of this world, and our sight, like Matt’s, is human and limited.

See, I was pretty angry at God and bitter towards his world.
How could a loving God blind me? Why? Anyway, he told me God’s plan is like a beautiful tapestry.
And the tragedy of being human is that we only get to see it from the back.
With all the ragged threads and the muddy colors.
And we only get a hint at the true beauty that would be revealed if we could see the whole pattern on the other side as God does.

Matt realises that God’s redemptive plans for the world might involve a suffering servant; that they might involve a faithful Job, a Good Samaritan… it’s not just an ‘everything happens for a reason’ trite answer, but rather a discovery of who he — and we image bearers — were made to be in a world where suffering and evil exist. That we were made for life-giving friendships that allow us to enter in to the suffering of others, and to stand against evil, as we reflect God’s presence in his world.

“I realise that if my life had turned out any differently, that I would never have become Daredevil. And although people have died on my watch, people who shouldn’t have, there are countless others that have lived. So, maybe it is all part of God’s plan. Maybe my life has been exactly as it had to be.”

Matt realises that his priest, Father Lantom, modelled sacrificial love — the death of self — and that this sort of posture is freeing; that it drives out fear in the face of suffering. Matt can be the ‘man without fear’ again. Matt is now free to be Job; free to trust God. Free to suffer. Free to be a servant. God’s soldier… He is truly restored. Finally resurrected.

But Matt’s answer would be richer and fuller if he wasn’t totally occupying the place of Jesus in the story; if he, like Job, could respond to suffering — even suffering as one who is righteous by trusting God as redeemer, looking forward, like the rest of the Old Testament, to the truly righteous suffering servant; the Good Samaritan. Light in the darkness. God’s true answer to suffering, and the moment we see the real picture woven in the tapestry of our existence. Jesus.

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

In Jesus we see real redemptive friendship. We see God. We see God, our friend, stepping in to our suffering — and taking on suffering, death, hell and exile, for us, to bring not just his resurrection, but ours, to end our suffering, exile from God, and death, by giving us life with God forever, so that we might face what comes without fear. Because our redeemer lives, and so shall we.

Why, with all due respect, it’s wrong to pit social justice against the Gospel

Eternity News has a new podcast, With All Due Respect. It features two people I appreciate and respect, Baptist pastor-theologian Megan Powell Du Toit and Anglican pastor-theologian Michael Jensen. The first four episodes have been fun, and a model of irenic disagreement. In episode three they tackled the relationship between social justice and the proclamation of the Gospel, a discussion prompted by a new ‘statement’ issued by a bunch of Christians in the U.S, who seem to have nothing better to do than sit around and come up with line drawing exercises to decide what really is and isn’t kosher for Christians; it’s in the tradition of the Nashville Statement, with a series of ‘affirmations’ and ‘denials’, and this one, The Statement on Social Justice, aims to make it clear to true Christians that the social gospel, especially as it applies to issues of racism and social justice is a distraction from the work of proclaiming the Gospel.

As something of a follow up to the podcast episode, Eternity ran this piece from Michael Jensen, fleshing out his argument — he’s not embracing the Statement, but he does share some of its concerns when it comes to the way the mission of the church might be confused when it comes to ‘social justice’ — he argues, in sum, that:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ demands social justice but working for social justice is not the gospel.”

His piece tracks back through the history of the evangelical movement’s approach to (and embrace of) the pursuit of justice as a fruit of the Gospel, to a fork in the road moment. A divide he describes between:

“… those who were committed to personal conversion through evangelism as the supreme, even only, calling of the church, and those who argued that the Christian gospel was advanced as much by social justice as by evangelism.” 

He reflects on the polarising way this debate has often been framed; and then attempts to chart a via media — and a new one — through the poles. Between “Christians are doing gospel work when they argue for racial equality or promote more just treatment of the poor, regardless of whether the gospel is preached or not,” and “our task is to preach the gospel, and when hearts are changed we find that society is changed.” 

The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the former, the social gospel position, is a version of the Gospel that recognises that there’s more to sin and evil than the individual, and that sin infects systems, institutions, and other social structures (a classically ‘left wing’ approach. The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the latter, is a version of the Gospel that focuses on one’s individual sin, and that Jesus takes the penalty for that sin. His middle way:

“And that means we cannot think of discipleship in simply individual terms. Neither can we think of the Christian gospel as only a matter of the individual’s reconciliation with God. But if it doesn’t begin with the individual’s reconciliation with God, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not just die for sin. He died for sinners.”

And this is all good stuff. It rejects a certain sort of reductionism that plenty of us fall into along tribal or ideological lines, and invites us to consider that the Gospel has both individual and systemic implications.

Jensen does make a claim about the priority in this relationship — the individual. And I’d like to humbly suggest that this definition of the Gospel also turns a fruit of the Gospel into the Gospel; that it is an anthropocentric Gospel rather than a Christocentric Gospel… that the Gospel ‘begins’ with Jesus, not our reconciliation with God; that it is good news because it is an announcement about the victory and rule of Jesus, as God’s king, and that this victory has individual and corporate fruits — the forgiveness of sins for the individual, and our reconciliation with God, is a fruit of this victory at the same time (and with the same priority); that Jesus is king of a new and different kingdom.

If we make the Gospel first about Jesus, rather than about the implications of what Jesus does for us, then we don’t have to resolve certain tensions but can hold them together (this is a bit like the way the reformers seem to use union with Christ to resolve a tension we’ve then tried to create between justification and sanctification).

Jensen’s conclusion is eloquent and excellent, after making the case that “the gospel demands that we think about social justice” he says:

“… we can too easily substitute working for social justice for the gospel – in which case we just become a reflection of whichever political philosophy we prefer, progressive or conservative. The power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, by drawing repentant sinners to the cross of Jesus Christ and by unleashing his resurrection power in them, is the power we wield for change.”

It is absolutely the power we wield for change. But how then do we wield it. Presumably, because he doesn’t expand on this point — he sees this wielding happening predominantly through proclamation, that there’s a priority here being expressed of word over deed. And again, I’d humbly suggest that this still resolves a tension that doesn’t need to be resolved, or prioritises one arm of a paradox. I think we’d do better to hold ‘word’ and ‘image’ or ‘speaking’ and ’embodying’ together in the way the incarnation of Jesus does; so that our actions and words together are what proclaims the Gospel. Our lives are part of the medium that carries the message of the Gospel.

In this way “the Gospel” has both individual and corporate fruits, and they work themselves out in the world through Christians — ambassadors of Jesus — as we live as embodied communities and individuals who belong to his kingdom; the church being both ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12) and Christians being those the Spirit is transforming into the image of Jesus. It seems oddly reductionist to separate word and deed the way we so often attempt to in these debates about what has priority. And here’s my real disagreement with this piece… It’s about who we are as humans and what it means to be human, then, what it means to be embodied speakers, and finally, the relationship between ethos and logos in communication. If we insist on splitting embodying the Gospel (or its fruit) from proclaiming the Gospel (or its fruit) in order to decide which activity has priority, we tear apart things that are held together both biblically and in our experience of reality.

One of Michael Jensen’s specialty areas is theological anthropology — what it means to be human. And I’m not going to be the young punk who tries to undo him on his own turf. I’m going to suggest he’s already undone himself… In one of my favourite essays (not just ‘essays by him,’ but essays), ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Social Media and the Paradox of Virtual Intimacy,’ he says:

“The Word, as John wrote, had become flesh: and the appearance of the Word enfleshed had been proclaimed as the decisive manifestation of the divine presence, full of grace and truth, revealing the glory of the Father. The fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily on Jesus Christ; and now that that body had ascended, and was no longer present to be touched, the presence of Jesus could be experienced textually – by means of the spoken and written recollections of Jesus. The fellowship of believers is then is called into being as itself the “body” of Christ, so as to mediate the presence of Christ in the world. It has in its possession the recollection of Jesus’s words and his works – and so it is called to believe his words, and depend upon his works, but also to repeat his words and perform his works.”

It’s difficult to split the church mediating the presence of Jesus in the world, and taking up the task to ‘repeat his words and perform his works’ — much as I’d suggest it’s difficult to split proclaiming the Gospel and living lives marked by the Gospel… especially if the Gospel is not about me, or us, but Jesus (with implications for me and us), and if Jesus is both the ‘word of God in the flesh’ and the image of God — an embodied communication (in word and deed), then these two tasks — word and deed — are aspects of one task. What I’m really trying to say… or what he said… is:

The Incarnation of the Son of God as “the image of the invisible God” is also a refraction that most basic of anthropological themes, namely, the imago dei. As the English theologian Alastair McFadyen and others have argued, the “image of god” is not a reference to some particular ability or capacity that human beings have, but to their vocation: they are called to represent the creator to the creation, in visible, bodily form. For this role they are made articulate: they are agents of communication in part because they are tasked with declaring the will of God to the world, and because they are invited to declare his praises to him. And they are made as bodies, located in time and space. They are something to see, and hear. The New Testament not only sees Jesus Christ as the one who finally fulfils this human vocation (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 4:4), but the church finds its new vocation in being renewed in the image now of Christ (as in Romans 8:29).

Splitting ‘representing the creator’ in visible, bodily, form and ‘proclaiming the Gospel’, given that this representation is about mediating or communicating, and ‘articulating’ starts to seem a bit like splitting a hair to me (as opposed to hairs).

Even if the church’s primary task is proclaiming the Gospel — especially because the Gospel is the power we wield in the world — then the idea that we can proclaim something just with words doesn’t grapple with who we are as people, how we communicate, or how we are persuaded. It assumes that our words (logos) can somehow exist in a vacuum, apart from our lives — our integrity and credibility as speakers. They can’t. Medium and message are inextricably tied together — if a message comes without a medium (well it can’t), but if it were simply words on a page with no reference to a communicator, that, in itself, communicates something that shapes the way the message is received… Our lives, our pursuit of justice and our lives as individuals, provide the context for others to interpret our proclamation. Here’s Jensen again, on Paul.

“It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.”

This is true for individuals — that our lives are the ethos that form the basis of our communication — that our words and manner of life work together… Why then, when it comes to the pursuit of justice, systemically, would we split our ‘observed manner of life’  — the imitation of Jesus our king — from the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king of a God’s kingdom? Why split the pursuit of justice from proclaiming the Gospel so long as both are consistent and there’s an integrity to our words and deeds?

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Play as a disruptive witness: How Bluey is a great show for parents (and for kids)

I watch lots of kids TV. Usually with the kids. There’s a new hit in our house — we measure the ‘hits’ based on whether one child will round up the other two when the theme song hits.

It’s called Bluey. Each episode offers 7 minutes of laugh out loud fun — and it’s Australian. It’s made here in Brisbane. It’s bouncy and light and ‘Aussie,’ but with no cultural cringe. The settings — like an episode in a local farmer’s market complete with German sausage stand and poffertjes store — are refreshingly relatable. The scripting, especially the jokes, is zesty and nails the pathos required to be ‘educational’ without veering into preaching or too ‘didactic’. In morning TV stakes, Bluey eats Peppa Pig for breakfast.

Here’s how the ABC describes Bluey, the titular character:

“Bluey is an inexhaustible six year-old Blue Heeler dog, who loves to play and turns everyday family life into extraordinary adventures, developing her imagination as well as her mental, physical and emotional resilience.”

Our kids aren’t short on imagination, or on the desire to turn every moment of play time into some sort of story or adventure — they’ve started playing out scenes from Bluey... but Bluey isn’t just a great show for kids; it’s a revolutionary show for parents. Perhaps especially dads.

Dads get a bad wrap on TV — whether its the “stupid white male” trope in advertising, or the animated versions of that trope where Homer Simpson is the archetype, and Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig isn’t far off, the bar is set pretty low for dads when it comes to interacting with their TV progeny. Daddy Pig is flawed, but relatable — and most definitely present in Peppa and George’s life in a loving, but bumbling manner, where he is often the butt of the joke… Bluey’s daddy, Bandit (usually called ‘Dad’ — and voiced by Custard frontman Dave McCormack), is a breath of fresh air. He’s the champion of his children’s play; when he’s the butt of jokes it is usually voluntary and self-deprecating  and for the sake of Bluey and Bingo (there’s one episode that veers into ‘dumb dad’ territory — when he takes the kids to the pool and leaves all the boring swimming stuff like hats and suncream behind), he’s fun (and the show is riotously funny); and he’s an exemplary dad in a television world that is crying out for a character like this. The way the relationship with ‘mum’ Chilli is portrayed is also sweet and refreshing.

While we’ve been discovering the joy of Bluey, we’ve been listening to an audiobook on drives with the kids, Alan Brough’s Charlie and the War Against the Grannies; it contains a little bit of social commentary on ‘digital orphans’ — those kids whose parents (like me) are often present in body, but not attention, with their kids. In a review of the story that touches on digital orphans and our failure to be attentive to our kids, Brough tells a story of what is too typical (and too descriptive of my own addiction to distraction).

“I was at the park with my daughter and there was a guy pushing his daughter on a swing while holding his phone up to his face, checking something… He wasn’t concentrating on the child at all, and at one point the swing whacked him in the side of the head and knocked him to the ground.”

There’s all sorts of research out there about screen time and kids — that I’ve wilfully ignored to date because screen time is so easy and parenting is hard (and also because I figure all the kids of this generation will be in the same boat, so at least some of the problems will just be new norms) — but this new study suggests a link both between screen time and anxiety and depression, and with that, a decline in imagination and all the things Bluey, ironically (as a TV show), aims to foster.

Even after only one hour of screen time daily, children and teens may begin to have less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks

Bluey is an antidote to this malaise — a picture of parenting with verve, and imagination, and the reminder that kids are pretty awesome and often the best thing you can do with (and for) your kids is play with them. This reminder is particularly pertinent coming as, for me, Apple’s screen time tracker is telling me I spend almost a full day a week staring at my phone screen (and it doesn’t measure computer screen time or TV screen time).

It may just be that imitating the sort of play Bluey’s dad engages in with your kids is what fosters their imagination and resilience, not simply watching it, or outsourcing parenting to screens so you can have more distracting screen time of your own… or bombarding them with extra-curricular work (or STEM homework). This sort of play could be the sort of disruptive witness, or practice, that shapes our kids to engage and transform the future. Alan Noble’s book, Disruptive Witness (reviewed here), made the case that our world normalises distraction and disenchantment; this is the world our kids grow up in, and a world that we Christians need to be pushing back against because belief in God requires contemplation and enchantment (a belief in the supernatural, transcendence, and wonder). Noble talks about the sort of practices to cultivate that are disruptive in a distracted world.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

Play is a practice, a spiritual discipline, both for adults and kids because it carves out the space we need to resist the world, and to keep re-forming ourselves to see the world properly. It’s about presence, but it also creates the sort of space for delight and an avoidance of repressing wonder and awe and a belief in magic in order to grow up. Teaching our kids to be present with their good and loving parents is a step in the direction of learning to be present with our good and loving heavenly father. Despite being a cartoon about a family of dogs, Bluey gives some concrete and beautiful pictures of what this could be like.

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Is nothing sacred any more? How an ad about organ donation reveals more about us than we might think.

Here’s the modern dilemma; I reckon. In a world where science and medicine is our best bet for staving off that great enemy, death, and where life itself on this ‘mortal coil’ is all that we have and we have to construct meaning for ourselves by valuing life: What do you do with the story of Jesus?

It’s clear his is an exemplary life in many ways – he’s some sort of wise teacher or guru on sacrificial love, we just have to figure out how to strip the story of all that super natural guff, not to find the ‘Jesus of history’ that scholars have been looking for, but the Jesus of the ‘good life’ for the here and now.

When we pushed away the idea of spirits and the supernatural – the ‘sacred’ – first from the ‘every day’ to the ‘church’, and then out of the picture all together as we pushed church and religion to the margins of our life and culture, we’re left with a different playground to come up with what is moral, or good, and this sense that Jesus, who’s been part of shaping our western moral imagination, might still have some role to play. We just weren’t quite sure what the role was…

Until someone had to come up with an ad for organ donation.

Have you seen it? Here’s a clip from the Today Show featuring the ad itself, and some discussion from the film maker who made the documentary the ad promotes.

The premise for the ad is ‘do what Jesus would do’ – the filmmaker was ‘brought up in a Christian home’, and says:

“You have to look at the intent… to really look at what Jesus would do if he was alive in 2018… seeing religion is all about being selfless, this is the most selfless act anyone could do, if they were going to pass, you know, giving up their organs so that someone could have a chance of not dying and having a chance at life.”

The problem with our world isn’t that the story of Jesus is sacred and this ad profanes his life, it’s that nothing is sacred. It’s that, as the ad says “no one wants to talk about death” and we know, deep down, we actually need something like religion to allow us to stare into that void, or be confronted with that reality. We’re left satirising what we’ve lost while at the same time being haunted by that loss… We imagine a 21st century Jesus who, himself, has lost his spirituality, a Jesus who isn’t divine, who can do nothing real about death except extend the lives of others, here and now, by dying.

Our cultural narrative is so hollowed out that to make a serious point about sacrificial love – whether its giving organs, or giving blood, we have to reach back into the tool box to find a narrative that shaped this value, and then subtly re-introduce it through irony. It’s sad, and yet, even in that haunting there’s a hint of truth.

Jesus did what the ad “dying to live” says on the tin – donated his life to give life. A donation that if the spiritual, sacred, stuff the ad brushes off is real did more than save seven lives.

“Not all of us are going to the ah, eternal paradise, and your organs could save the lives of up to six… no… seven… people.”

This is one of those ads that garners attention by fostering outrage; but it’s not outrageous, it’s confronting and revealing. If we sit with it long enough to make sense of just how clever it is. When you lose a sense of the eternal, of life beyond death, and define love in those terms the story of Jesus is still the best the west has, but it’s so hollow.

The problem, of course, with the use of the story of Jesus to push for people to be selfless, if it’s not ‘true,’ is that there’s a more compelling narrative than sacrifice. Being ‘selfish’, or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ because tomorrow we die, the Jesus story is foolishness if it isn’t true (1 Corinthians 15). And Paul is right. The Jesus story doesn’t cut it as a secular narrative, if ‘the’ secular narrative about the meaning of life and the ‘sacred’ is true. What could be more foolish than giving up anything for anybody else? That we find the narrative of sacrifice appealling at all is precisely because of the way the sacred has worked its way into our collective moral imagination.

You also can’t really push the sacred stuff out of the Jesus story, you don’t have much left in the Gospels if you take the scissors to anything super-natural or miraculous. The Christian story says, to a world where we want nothing to be sacred, ‘everything is sacred’…

Jesus didn’t come just to give us a full and abundant life now (John 10) – the sort of good life re-gained when we’re reconnected to the giver of life (and I think we can be confident that life lived this way, is, on balance better and more meaningful). Jesus came to give us eternal life, to re-make us so that every moment is lived connected to that maker, so that everything is sacred, so that we can stare at death and talk meaningfully and courageously about it – about a ‘good death’ and what ‘life giving’ looks like… and we can live selflessly all the time not just when we tick a box on an organ donation form.

We can look at the cross and its culture-shaping power without feeling the need to resort to irony or deprecation, and instead have it shape the way we live, the way we give our lives… that’s what Paul says in the Bible, anyway.

This is what Jesus would do in 2018 – not to save seven lives from death, not to give people a new lease on life, but to purchase eternal life for all, because no matter how hard we push back against eternal, infinite, spiritual realities – they keep pushing themselves back into our pictures.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. – Romans 12:1

Embodying the word of God is our liturgy (a response to a Gospel Coalition piece today)

Over at the Gospel Coalition Australia there’s a self-admittedly click-baity piece by Peter Orr titled Against Liturgy: The Word of God is Enough. It’s a relatively standard modernist-evangelical response to the push to recapture ‘liturgy’ led by James K.A Smith, but which you’ll also find in the water of the writing of lots of theologically Reformed types grappling with how to follow Jesus against a post-modern, post-Christian, back drop (so also, for example, in books by Mike Cosper (Recapturing Wonder), Alan Noble (Disruptive Witness), Tish Harrison Warren (The Liturgy of the Ordinary).

Now, while I’m a big fan of Smith’s framework, I have problems with how he applies or prescribes it (and similar problems with other pushes for liturgy that land on the practices of the institutional or medieval church — the church of the cathedral rather than the household). I suspect the helpful emphasis Smith, and others, bring to the forms our practices take not just to the message are a sort of double edged sword that also cut into forms developed at a time that Christianity was in the cultural and political ascendency — we might need to ask what sort of aesthetic, cultural practices, and forms the story of the Gospel most naturally produces (more on that in my review of Disruptive Witness and a thing on what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might involve).

Orr’s summary of Smith’s framework, which he critiques, is as follows:

“For Smith, the Scriptures are the answer, but they work powerfully in us through patterns of worship. Smith is not denying the power of Scripture—at this point—but arguing that Scripture will only (or mainly) transform us as it is combined with the liturgical habit and practice of Christian worship.”

For Smith, such habits and practices do indeed involve images and the way they seep into the imagination. For Orr, this framework threatens the power of the living word of God. He says:

“Smith’s basic assumption here seems to be that the Scriptures are just like any other piece of information. That is they are inert and do not effect transformation unless they are supplemented by the implicitly more powerful practices of liturgy and habit. The theology of Scripture underlying Smith’s thesis at this point seems to assume that Scripture has no innate power of itself. Although he absolutely believes that the Bible is the Word of God, it won’t transform unless it is combined with the liturgical practices that allow its message to be internalised. It does not seem to have any innate power in itself.”

He then says the Bible is where God speaks, and where transformation comes from.

“What will call the wanderer back? What will strengthen the struggler? What will nurture children? What will encourage the mature believer? The living and active word of God. Do we need to think about how the liturgies of our services help people internalize the Scriptures? Yes! But these liturgies have to be built around the conviction that the Scriptures are ‘the word of God written’ and, as such, are powerful in and of themselves. We don’t need the false ‘liturgy’ of paintings or gowns to call us back to Jesus but the wonderfully powerful word of God.”

Having read a fair chunk of Smith over the years, I’m not sure Orr is fairly representing Smith’s views as opposed to creating a strawman. I’m equally not excited about Smith’s description of how his framework might shape kids ministry or the life and imagination of believers through the use of images, but I have a problem with the flattening of the dynamic of God’s word that might come from Orr’s click-baity title and how it frames the content of his piece.

Because the title is fatally flawed.

God’s word inevitably produces a liturgy. If liturgy is a series of practices, repeated as an expression of worship, in the pursuit of transformation, or the formation of character, then such practices are inevitable and inextricable caught up with God’s speaking to us and acting in us by the Spirit as we hear his word. You can’t split what the Bible doesn’t.

The living WORD of God, Jesus, says this, recorded for us in the written word of God (already there’s a fun dynamic going on there):

Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” — Luke 6:46-49

There’s a connection between hearing God’s word and putting them into practice. Repeatedly and habitually. A connection Orr acknowledges; but that is undermined by the heading of the piece.

If it’s true that everybody worships something, that to be human is to worship, and this is the part of Smith’s framework that Orr likes, then it is also true that everybody has a liturgy, every church has a liturgy, every Christian has a liturgy — a set of habits and behaviours that form us. The question is what liturgy, what forms or mediums support the word of God in its transforming work in our lives. For many, and perhaps for Orr, the reading, singing, and preaching of the words of Scripture in our gathering together is the liturgy required to emphasise that God speaks and acts through his word… but I’m not sure that’s the liturgy that God’s word itself suggests. I’m not sure it cuts it, because that alone is not the liturgy — the set of practices — that God’s word supplies, or that were the common practices of the early church.

In Romans 1 Paul uses one of the three words translated as ‘worship’ in the New Testament, to make the claim that Smith makes in his cultural liturgies series — that we are creatures shaped and oriented in the world by our worship; that our thinking often follows the desires of our heart.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” — Romans 1:25

This is the description of our nature as worshippers who adopt a set of practices — a liturgy — that conforms with our gods. On this, it seems that Orr and Smith are in agreement (at least inasmuch as Orr consistently praises Smith’s insights). What’s interesting, though, is that the ‘worship word’ is the one translated as ‘served’ (λατρεύω — latreo), the word translated ‘worship’ here is about being awestruck (σεβάζομαι —sebazomai). Paul comes back to this idea of worship as service — as habitual service — later in this letter to the Roman church. The letter that talks lots about transformation (Romans 8), and about the role of God’s word in that transformation (Romans 10), but in terms of our ongoing formation and the place of liturgy, I suspect this is where I depart from Smith and Orr. Paul has a particular vision for the practices that bring transformation (or that conform us into the pattern and image of Jesus rather than the world), and while I think formation has to be embodied it’s not statues and stations of tactile learning in the kids church area (though I’d be all for more play-based and tactile pedagogical practices in kids churches, as opposed to exclusively head-focused practices that our modernist practices have normalised). Paul has a particular shape for our liturgy that comes from keeping God’s WORD in view as we hear God’s word, a liturgy given to us in God’s word.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Here Paul uses the noun form of the verb he used in Romans 1 — our hearts will worship something, our bodies will practice some sort of worship. God’s word tells us that our liturgy should be ‘in view of God’s mercy’ an offering of our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). He goes on to talk about how this works in context of the church — the body of Christ, the members belonging to one another — in the rest of Romans 12 with a set of liturgical practices that embody the Gospel to one another, as we live lives shaped by God’s spirit in us. It’s not just hearing God’s word that God’s word says transforms us  — it’s God’s word enacted by the Spirit at work within us, through our new worship, is where transformation by the Spirit happens.

So here’s my contentious claim contrary to Smith’s desire to have our imagination shaped by tactile statues — in our liturgy, our imaginations are to be shaped — our habits caught — from the lives of the saints, who are passing on the liturgy or practices taught and commanded in God’s word — putting into practice the teaching of Jesus. We don’t learn God’s word and what it looks like to apply it in a vacuum — God’s word points us to God’s WORD, and we learn what a liturgical life shaped by his sacrifice looks like from God’s word, the Bible, and from those in the body of Christ — the community shaped by the proclamation and practicing of that word. This is what ‘making disciples’ looks like.

And by this I don’t just mean long dead figures whose names we append ‘St.’ to, I mean the living breathing examples of the people of God around us as we gather as embodied people to hear God’s word and put it into practice. This is why Paul so often appeals to his example in the lives of the churches he pastors, and connects that to the example of Jesus. The word of God is full of examples of people, like Paul, talking about embodying the Gospel and imitating Jesus, and instructions to do likewise — to take up a liturgical way of life. You can’t say the Bible has authority and in the next breath say that liturgy has no value and that God’s word is enough. The liturgy of offering ourselves as living sacrifices is what we pass on from generation to generation, and it’s these examples of the love of Jesus, reflecting and inextricably linked to the word and WORD of God, that are most powerful in those circumstances where we’re tempted to doubt or to worship some other created thing.

Consider the dynamic Paul describes here, in God’s word, what it demonstrates about the connection between hearing God’s word and experiencing it being practiced in the lives and liturgy of his faithful church:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus — 1 Thessalonians 2:7-14

And perhaps my favourite liturgical passage (alongside the description of the life of the church in Acts 2, which seems to look a lot like the life Paul calls Christians to in Romans 12).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” — Colossians 3:15-17

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Don’t forget the torches — light trumps darkness: learning about politics and life from some imaginative protestors

Gambling is a scourge on our society. It seems to me that it’s one of a handful of social issues — alongside alcohol, domestic violence, our treatment of our indigenous peoples, and refugees — that occupies a similar blind spot for us Aussies that is similar to guns in the U.S psyche.

We Aussies sometimes like to look down our noses at the stranglehold the N.R.A has on gun control law in America, so this week it’s been revealing to see just how deeply enmeshed the gambling industry is in Australian life as a big-money horse race took over a national icon (paid for by lotteries), the Sydney Opera House. The manager of this cultural precinct didn’t want it given over to this modern idol of our culture, and a radio host with pretty strong links to the racing industry slammed her, leading the charge in such a way that our political leaders fronted the media to justify (and support) an industry that destroys lives (but lines the public coffers, and the coffers of our political parties), first the Premier of New South Wales, then the Prime Minister. Here’s what Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to say:

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? These events generate massive economic opportunities for the state, for the city.”

It’s the economy. Stupid.

A federal government study on the deleterious impact of race betting on Australians found:

Among other things, survey data tell us that in 2015, nearly one million Australians regularly gambled on horse and dog racing. Most race bettors were men, and aged between 30 and 64. Their typical monthly expenditure on race betting amounted to $1,300 each over the year. Some 400,000 experienced one or more gambling-related problems.

Now. Like many Aussies — including the 290,000 who signed a petition against this advertising campaign that the New South Wales government refused to accept, I’m pretty disillusioned about Australian politics.

I feel helpless and on the sidelines while watching things like this unfold. Political action seems pointless.

I think there are plenty of dark times ahead for those of us who want a democracy built on making space at the table for one another, and pursuing civility and the ability to live well together. I despair about our treatment of refugees, and the unborn. I despair about much Christian advocacy in its misrepresentation of those we disagree with (so, for example, while I think it’s bad legislation, I don’t think the spirit of the new abortion laws in Queensland is to allow women to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason they want up until birth, and I don’t think the pro-life case is helped by painting the ‘other’ side this way).

I’m struck by how much responsibility and hope we give to politicians to solve our social issues, a phenomenon James Davison Hunter observed in his book To Change The World, and how much then we run to ideological camps where we can sling rocks at those opposed. He says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.”

This is the way our public conversations are framed — when there’s a problem we want others to solve it; specifically, the state. And we do our part by making lots of outraged noise on social media, and signing petitions (and there’s a place for this, of course). But what if this limits our imagination when it comes to other solutions?

Hunter says:

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws, and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit… it is only logical then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily, through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.”

Hunter also suggests this politicization frames our ‘common life’ so much that it gives birth to the sort of ideological posturing that has killed our ability to disagree well, or seek compromise. It also means there is no ‘public’ space or ‘commons’ that is not politicised (like the Opera House). He says:

“Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life, and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Perhaps the only thing worse than the collapse of the public space into the political, is the giving over of public space — the commons — to the market, especially when that’s a political decision made for apparent political gain (it’s the economy stupid). Another book I’ve been particularly challenged by this year, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction, makes the point that the sort of paying attention is much harder when our public spaces are now places where we are bombarded with messages from private enterprise. He says clear public space — the ‘commons’ is necessary for ethical life together — for listening to one another long enough to escape ideological posturing, or the darkness of the world around us.

“The idea of a commons is suitable in discussing attention because, first, the penetration of our consciousness by interested parties proceeds very often by the appropriation of attention in public spaces, and second, because we rightly owe to one another a certain level of attentiveness and ethical care.”

Crawford uses the example of the airport to make his point — and its a tale of two lounges, the private airline lounges and the public lounges around the gates. In the public space companies have paid to bombard you with advertising material — billboards, TV screens, businesses, while in the private space you’re offered the luxury of distraction free comfort. The wealthy have the luxury of not needing the ‘commons’ to avoid the privatised messaging they don’t want — they pay for something not-so-common (and it’s perhaps, the same with the Opera House, I wonder what the outcry would be like if these adverts were projected on the curtains of the Opera before or after a performance). Here’s Crawford setting the scene:

Or do we? Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge. Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge, and we may start to see these things in a political light. To engage in playful, inventive thinking, and possibly create wealth for oneself during those idle hours spent at an airport, requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon lounge (or at the bus stop) can be treated as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas hatched by the “creatives” in the business lounge.”

Ouch.

Crawford also talks about the mechanics of addiction, and the way the gambling industry (especially pokie machine makers) exists as a parasite with the express goal of having customers ‘play to extinction’… distracting us to oblivion with bright lights and pretty colours (and some other pretty nefarious techniques).

This outsourcing of decision making to our law makers means the stakes are impossibly high. If we think reducing gambling, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or pregnancy terminations, depends on our politicians we lack imagination, and we over-estimate the capacity of our leaders to escape their own political interests and deliver actual results. If we put all our eggs in that basket then to lose the political battle is to lose the war…

If we want to stand against darkness, the answer is bringing light. It’s to stop outsourcing problem-solving to government and to start acting as citizens, forming institutions and movements, to model a better way forward. This is perhaps particularly true for Christians given the way light and darkness work in our story.

And there’s no better picture of the power of light to trump darkness than the way protestors standing in the Opera House forecourt tonight disrupted the projection of the gambling ads onto the Opera House sails. With torches. With light. They didn’t quite have enough torch-power to overcome the industrial sized projectors throwing the ads up, but they tried, they were noticed, and if more of us imagined non-political solutions to social problems that involved harnessing people power we might see changes to how public life happens… it’s this evocative picture of light starting to overcome even the brightest darkness.

There’s much that we Christians could learn about how to participate in a public that seems increasingly dark. We might stop putting our effort into political solutions to the problems around us and start shining light in such a way that the darkness is obscured. We might trust that eventually, though it feels like we’re pushing up hill, enough light shone on something dark will buckle it and break it… no matter how deeply enmeshed a problem is… And maybe we’ll bring a renewed sense of imagination to the task of ‘politics’…

Instead of standing outside abortion clinics, protesting to change legislation as ‘political speech’ (or just getting in the face of the ‘other’) in what our legislators have created as exclusion zones, we might keep building communities that are inclusion zones for vulnerable parents-to-be. Instead of just looking for political solutions on domestic violence we could start refuges and services to make escaping that darkness more possible for women. Instead of playing the same partisan ideological game where we want to win the political fight at all costs, at all times, we might try to make room in public for the people we disagree with to be truly seen and heard. Instead of making political arguments seeking a win over the other, we might seek to win the other over to the light (you know, by making Christian politics about Jesus…).

Hunter and Crawford are describing some things that I’d love to see transform the way we approach politics in Australia. It would be amazing and transformative if we stopped peddling the narrative that politics will solve everything, or giving the keys to the ‘public’ to these leaders who then rely on private dollars to hold on to power. It’d be amazing if we all took up our torches to bring light into these unseen problems in our psyche — our cultural dependancy on gambling and alcohol, and the violence that seems so endemic behind closed doors (62 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence this year, seven women in the last six days… while zero people were killed by needles in strawberries).

The downside to all this optimism about people power, of course, is the images from history of angry mobs with torches hunting down those on the other side. Here’s where I reckon the optimism of plenty of political activism breaks down — the idea that we could, or would, do a better job than those in power if we took the power off them.

There are plenty of iconic torch-carrying-mob pictures we could consider from some of humanity’s darker moments, but perhaps none are more iconic than this one.

So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. — John 18:3-5

People power can be harnessed for some pretty dark stuff.

Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, approached in the night by a mob carrying torches trying to outshine his light… but even in this moment, the start of his darkest hours, Jesus is triumphing by refusing to play the political game the world expects. It’s like the words of Jesus that John recorded back near the start of his story were prescient.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” — John 3:19-21

This is the uniquely bright light we have to shine on the problems of this world — the light of the world, Jesus, has much to offer when it comes to addressing violence against women, alcohol addiction, gambling, and how we treat the unborn. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, isn’t just an alternative to worldly powers, but offers a rationale for rejecting the ‘politicisation of everything’ and the idea that human governments should be responsible for solving all the world’s problems. He’s the king who doesn’t sell us out for his own interests so that the ‘commons’ is turned against us, but who gives himself as a ransom to bring us from ‘the kingdom of darkness into light’. He invites us into the kingdom, he invites us to turn on the torches, knowing that even in those moments where it doesn’t seem we’re cutting through the darkness, or over-powering the bright lights of our cultural idols, his light is not overcome. He gives us a type of political action that isn’t pointless — the call to point people to God’s kingdom in our participation in the public sphere.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:14-16

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The Bachelor Apocalypse: What Nick Cummins’ so-called failure teaches us about true love

Like many Aussie blokes, I watched The Bachelor this season. Nick Cummins is a hero. A professional footballer (in the wrong code), who churns out colourful metaphors with every sentence, and seems to be a genuinely great guy. He turned down a Wallabies jersey (having already played for Australia a bunch of times) to move to Japan to make money to support his dad in his battle with prostate cancer, and his two younger siblings who have cystic fibrosis. There’s class, commitment, drive, and humour attached to the Cummins name, or rather, to his nickname: ‘the honey badger’… a name he apparently picked for himself.

“These documentaries would come on about this fearless little mongrel; just charging around, 40ks a day it’d do, 40ks… get around, eat everything, attack anything… You’ve all seen that one where it got bitten by that cobra or whatever, and after a while the venom gets too much, so she just keels over for a while, has a bit of a kip, and then she sparks back up, and keeps eating the bloody cobra. That’s how I want to live life.”

The Bachelor hasn’t exactly been known for class, commitment, or humour, and yet, somehow the producers lined Nick up, because a guy like this is bound to be a ratings hit. The Badgelor was born. And it was a ride. Right up until the wheels fell off…

I’m fascinated by this show like I’m fascinated by car accidents when I’m driving along the highway; there’s that ‘rubbernecking’ impulse that means you can’t look away, but you know what you’re looking at is a mangled mess. The concept of the Bachelor, for those who’ve managed to keep their eyes fixed on the road, is that one man enters a house with around 20 women. They’re all looking for love. Each episode features a group date, a single date (with one ‘lucky’ girl), and a rose ceremony, where the Bachelor decides who he wants to keep around by handing out a rose. The numbers get whittled down until the finale, where the Bachelor has to decide between the two women he’s kept around for the longest.

Last night the Honey Badger chose nobody.

And he’s being condemned on social media, and in the mainstream media stories that now just consist of sharing what people are saying, because, you know, Vox Populi, Vox Dei (two things: One. This could well be the only review of The Bachelor season finale that uses Latin? Two. That means ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God,’ in journalism a ‘vox pop’ is a bit of content produced just by asking people their opinion, suddenly, in journalism, all stories are ‘vox pops’ because we are, more than ever, the gods of the media. The media just exists now to reflect our image back to us like a magic mirror telling us how beautiful and wise we are).

Now, I know you’re not meant to take shows like The Bachelor too seriously; you’re not meant to shed revealing light on how ‘everyone knows’ the mechanics of this sort of show aren’t realistic and don’t produce real love (despite the consistent narrative that lots of successful couples started on this program)… it’s like a magician unpacking his best trick… we want the magic. We want to believe. It’s even worse to try to use a show like this to ‘shed light’ on the culture that produces it… but the Bachelor is revealingapocalyptic even, in that an ‘apocalypse’ actually just shows things the way they really are by using ‘fantasy’ (technically). The Bachelor is fantasy, and it is revealing about our modern story — and our modern gods — so it is apocalyptic.

The headline FoxSports is running on the finale is ‘Honey Badger roasted over Bachelor fail‘… calling it a ‘disappointing finish’. Nick then had to face Lisa Wilkinson in a ‘tell all’ interview that will air on Sunday (so we have to wait for days, in this outrage), and in the news.com.au story anticipating this interview we’re told that Nick, the man who sacrificed the fame of a Wallabies jersey for the fortunes of his family, has “a lot of work to do to salvage his reputation which is in tatters after last night’s shocking finale.” His reputation is being savaged online by fans taking to “social media to share their outrage at his decision with one viewer labelling the Honey Badger a “coward.”” These reactions reveal more about us than they do about Nick; about how much is at stake for us in the sort of ‘love story’ The Bachelor offers for us to escape into; at the same time that the story reflects and reinforces what we think about love with the trappings of ‘fantasy’…

Nick, an earnest sort of fella, seemed to go into this arrangement in good faith. Perhaps with too much faith in the process. And it did a number on him. A bloke isn’t meant to pursue love while simultaneously dating twenty women, or four, or three, or even two. In the last couple of episodes you could see, and hear, Nick starting to realise this — that the artificial environment had done a number on his head. That he was being asked to do the impossible. That the fantasy wasn’t going to deliver a fairy tale ‘happy ending’ but unless he changed the game and refused to play by its rules, was going to end in tragedy.

How is a bloke meant to decide ‘who he has feelings for’ when it’s clear he has feelings for all of them? In not choosing either girl at the end, Nick didn’t reveal so much about his character, but plenty about the character of the show — it’s a horrific circus, about those who watch it, and about what people think love is — including the contestants. To come to the end of a circus without being able to say ‘I love you’ to one of the two women willing to say ‘I love you’ to him isn’t a character fail on Nick’s part; it’s a failure for a culture that no longer knows what love is. Nick shared a bunch of ‘hot dates’ and ‘steamy kisses’ with plenty of these women. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he commit? Why couldn’t he say “I love you”?

Here’s why. As a culture, we’ve decoupled sex and intimacy from love, so that love now comes after sex, which is what it is… “Love is love,” after all, which is a meaningless platitude that has somehow become a definition for a ‘feeling’ we find hard to define, but we’re apparently able to recognise it when it is there, or not yet there… But we’ve also made ‘love’ more a noun than a verb — a feeling rather than a decision.

I’m marrying a couple this afternoon (as in conducting their wedding), and one of the beautiful things about their story is that they understand that love isn’t just a thing you feel and then say, it’s a thing you say and then do. This isn’t to say feelings aren’t important. They are. But that posture of love and commitment — being on a journey together when life gets hard, being on a journey through more than just orchestrated ‘perfect dates’ with cameras rolling — that’s what love looks like. I’m utterly unsurprised that Nick, who seems to have a pretty level head on his shoulders, was ‘confused’ and ‘cloudy’ and unable to commit in an environment that is totally artificial. Last night was a triumph because he was able to see through the fog clearly enough — to shed enough light — that he realised the whole thing was artificial. That he couldn’t succeed if success is determined by that ‘story’ he was taking part in. Can Nick’s apocalypse prompt an apocalypse for us? His moment of clarity and revelation? The very artificiality, the artifice, of the Bachelor — where relationships unfold in ‘perfect environments’ — starting with ‘the Mansion’ and ending in New Caledonia — sets the relationships up for failure. Relationships are forged through hard times — even the drama in the show is created artificially, the drama of group dates and women competing for the attention of one man. That’s not ‘through sickness and health’…

But it’s not just The Bachelor that is broken, it’s our cultural narrative (which produces it as a ‘fantasy’) — the idea of ‘the one’ who is out there who will complete me, such that all my life (and relationships) are experiments in pursuit of that ‘one’ — is broken. The problem with Nick’s narrative last night was that he wanted to find a woman he liked enough to say ‘I love you’ to; there’s a nobility there, to taking love seriously… but given his ‘connection’ to several of these women he could’ve simply picked any one of them to make that commitment to, and then to start that journey. That’s what love is.

We got the couple whose marriage I’m conducting today to read Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning Of Marriage. It’s a good book that unloads on some of the cultural narratives that The Bachelor imbibes and perpetuates. They quote Stanley Hauerwas to make the point that no two people are ever ‘truly compatible’ because the very nature of being on a journey of life together, ‘life partners’ as Nick called it, is that life changes us. Hauerwas says ‘we always marry the wrong person’ and that the challenge of marriage, of working through life is ‘learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.’ The Kellers say:

“Modern people make the painfulness of marriage even greater than it has to be, because they crush it under the weight of their almost cosmically impossible expectations.”

Where we used to look to God for satisfaction and a sense of where we sit in the universe, now we place that expectation squarely on the shoulders of ‘the one’… There was plenty of language about being ‘completed’ in the finale last night, because sex and love now occupy the place of God. And people can’t shoulder that weight. The Kellers say there’s a secret to not crushing each other with these modern expectations — a secret that frees us to commit, and to love, but also that teaches us what love is.

“This is the secret — that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind.”

Their summary of the Gospel is:

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us.”

If we bring that understanding of ourself, and each other, to marriage — without the God stuff — it stops us pinning unrealistic hope for our relationship and the ‘one’, so that we’re always looking elsewhere, and the realistic picture of ourself, and the other, helps us to forgive and forbear. It helps us stick with each other on the journey. The God stuff matters because it gives us somewhere else – somewhere right — to pin those hopes and expectations.

At this wedding this afternoon I’m giving the ‘words of counsel’ from Ephesians 5, a passage that has unfortunately been abused in bad marriages over the years because it uses the word ‘submit’, and people miss that the posture of submission is mutual, and that submission (and love) means sacrificing strength for the other, and that for marriage to do something Paul, who wrote Ephesians, says is ‘mysterious’ — for it to teach us about God’s love for us, the call on the husband, to sacrifice, is even bigger than the call on the wife.

Paul says, at the start of chapter 5, to:

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This ‘way of love’ is the way of self-sacrifice, it’s a path you walk together having made a commitment to do that… that’s what love is. An action, not a feeling. That’s what The Bachelor gets wrong in elevating feelings, sex, and romance, components of that journey, to ‘love’ — but it’s not just them, it’s our whole modern narrative, and the Bachelor (and the twitter commentary around it) throws open the curtains to reveal just how small and hollow this picture of love is, and how hollow we are if we think ‘not finding love’ on a TV show is a shattering failure rather than the start of a journey towards something true.

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Could a theology of beauty fix how we talk about ‘attraction’ and help us tell a better story about God, the world, and ourselves

There was a massive controversy in the church in the United States recently around a conference called Revoice.

Revoice was a conference held for Same Sex Attracted Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic. The Same Sex Attracted Christian camp who hold to a traditional sexual ethic are occasionally called ‘Side B’ as opposed to ‘Side A’ — those who affirm that same sex attraction is natural and to be embraced with body and mind. Within the ‘Side B’ tent there’s an emerging discussion about how appropriate it is for a same sex attracted Christian with a traditional sexual ethic (a commitment to celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage) to use the label ‘gay’ for themselves; whether a ‘gay identity’ is compatible with the lordship of Jesus. My friend Tom has some thoughts on this question over at Transparent (part 1, part 2), and he’s much better equipped to comment on the lived reality of this tension than me.

The conversation has recently made it to our shores, in various networks, and while my inclination had been to not give the drama any oxygen because it is within the Christian bubble; both the way that conversation seems to be taking shape and the mainstream media coverage of Wesley Hill’s visit to Australia (he’s aligned with the Revoice conference, and one of the best voices on imaginative ways for Christians to maintain a traditional sexual ethic because of faithfulness to Jesus), here’s my contribution. It goes beyond questions about sexuality though, and into the realm of our relatively anaemic approach to aesthetics within the Reformed tradition, that I’ve written about previously.

The danger in these conversations, at least as they’ve played out in the blogosphere in the US, is that words are tricky to pin down and so people keep talking past each other. Identity is a pretty nebulous concept and a pretty recent one — the desire to have and perform an identity is a reasonably recent trend for us people; that comes with the collapsing sense that who we are is a ‘given’ from a transcendent order (God, or ‘the gods’), and something to be crafted by us as individuals. Identity the way we talk about it now — both as Christians and in the wider world — is a novelty, check out how both ‘identity’ and ‘sexuality’ are increasing in frequency in publication (using Google’s ngram data) and how recent that increase is. Certainly the Bible has lots to say about what it means to be human — but our current conception doesn’t immediately overlay on the Biblical account of our anthropology — and we need to be careful with that…

One of the reasons we need to be careful is that we might freight significance into terms that just isn’t there; and cause division in the body rather than working with one another to pursue greater clarity. We need to be careful not to assume that one’s sexual orientation is fundamental to a person’s identity (or personhood), but that it will shape their experience of reality (especially in a sexuality obsessed culture where identity construction is fundamental to being an ‘authentic’ self). We need to listen to those wanting to use a label like ‘gay’ to understand what they see encompassed in that label — if it’s just sexual attraction, or sexual desire, or a temptation, or lust, sexual expression, or some combination of those things, then we need to carefully parse what is and isn’t part of our inherent sinful nature. I’m going to assume, as someone operating in a particular Christian tradition, that all of us male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, cis- gendered or trans-gendered, are naturally sinful — that our hearts are, by nature, and from birth, turned from God and that this nature expresses itself in our sexuality, our gender identity, and even in our embodied experience of the world. One of the reasons to be careful is that I don’t have to walk around labelling myself as a ‘straight Christian’ — and it’s easy to, as a result, assume that all aspects of my identity at that point — from attraction to expression — are ‘licit’ or untainted by sin; and I know that not to be true, even in marriage. Parsing this stuff out carefully teaches us all something about the place sex has in our world; and about the problems with operating as though we are autonomous units engaged in the task of authentic identity construction (even if as Christians we want to ‘autonomously’ construct that identity centred on Jesus). As a general rule I want to push back on expressive individualism and the pursuit of an authentic ‘identity’ that we then perform, and cobble together through consumer choices and labels. That’ll probably increasingly be a theme in what I write… but in this particular instance I want to zero in on the part of this debate that argues that attraction, a same sex attraction, should be put to death, that to use it (or gay) as a description of one’s identity is to embrace and celebrate sin, and suggest an alternate approach where repentance is better (and rightly) understood as a same sex attracted person turning to Jesus as the source of their personhood and object of their love (and worship), such that this love re-orders their experience in the world and their attraction. I want to suggest that in my own ‘straight’ experience; and perhaps in the gay experience of others, attraction is an experience of beauty; and that there is a ‘right use’ of that beauty. I’m not suggesting anything that you won’t find better expressed by Hill and others; especially Augustine. I want to carefully listen to my same sex attracted friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ, when they say there’s more to the ‘gay’ label than temptation, lust, and sexual expression — and to ask if there might be something about the world God made that these brothers and sisters see that I do not, and that if ‘rightly used’, this might bless the church beyond just helping us support, care for, encourage and disciple our same sex attracted brothers and sisters… and I want to suggest that a better account of beauty might help us in this area; but might also help us be a witness to our neighbours.

From the first page of the Bible we get a picture of God as an artist — as creator — as one who delights in the beauty and goodness of the world he made. It’s a mantra repeated piece by piece as the beauty of his handiwork emerges to be met with him ‘seeing’ that what he made is ‘good’ and then the final declaration:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

There’s a link here between goodness and seeing — there’s also a link between function and seeing (following John Walton’s work on the verb ‘bara’ — create or make — where he shows that to create something is to make it for a purpose). Goodness is ‘teleological’ — it is not just arbitrary. But God is pleased with what he sees; he rests in it. This includes the pinnacle of that creation week — humanity. Male and female. Made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27

There is a beauty to the world, and to humanity, that reveals something of the nature and character of God as the creator of beauty. This seems a reasonably straightforward case to make from Genesis 1 (and one that Paul seems to make in Romans 1:20).

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

Something of the divine nature is revealed — clearly seen and understood — from ‘what has been made’ — including, presumably, from its beauty.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” — Genesis 3:6

It’s not the beauty of this fruit; or even appreciating the beauty of it (God had made it pleasing to the eye) that is at the heart of Eve’s sin here. She is attracted to the fruit because it is beautiful; it is what she desires about that fruit — a different purpose to the one that God created it with (a different ‘telos’) that is illicit. The fruit is beautiful and attractive. Desiring and eating the fruit is sin. Because it represented a desire contrary to God’s desires — and, indeed, a desire to be ‘like God’ in a manner different to the likeness we were created to enjoy. In this moment Eve is presented with a false picture of God by the serpent; and so she loves a created thing more than she loves the creator — and from that flows all sorts of sinful acts.

This might sound like a totally abstract thing, disconnected from sexuality, lust, and attraction; the idea that a piece of fruit might be the subject of erotic desire in any way analogous to sexuality… except that the writer of 2 Samuel makes a pretty explicit parallel (so too does the writer of Joshua when it comes to Achan’s sin with material things, and Judges when it comes to Samson’s desire for his first Philistine wife). It seems that theologians like James K.A Smith who want to suggest that there’s a link between worship and eros, so that idolatry is misdirected eros, or eros not first directed to God, aren’t far off the Biblical data. When David sees Bathsheba exactly the same patterns play out. I’ll bold the words that are the same as Genesis 3 in the Hebrew.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba,the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. — 2 Samuel 11:2-4

The ‘saw’ is the same root, רָאָה (raah), the ‘beautiful’ is the same as ‘good’ in Genesis 3:6 טוֹב (tob — where the ‘b’ is a ‘v’ sound), and the ‘to get her’ is the same verb as ‘took’ — לָקַח (laqach). David’s fall mirrors Adam and Eve’s — except with the additional dynamic of the Genesis 3 curse, where instead of a man and woman bearing the image of God together in relationship, he uses his power and strength (and position as king) to ‘take’ her (which is why this isn’t ‘David’s adultery with Bathsheba’ but ‘David taking Bathsheba with soldiers according to his desires’). There is nothing David does right with his sexuality here (and very little he does right with his sexuality his whole life). But… It seems to me that those who are saying Christians shouldn’t use the label gay because ‘attraction’ is inherently sinful must look at this episode and say the problem was Bathsheba’s beauty, or at least that once David saw it he was immediately captivated by it — that seeing her bathing and noticing her beauty he had no other option but to sin; such is his heterosexual orientation. But is there another way of approaching this narrative?

It seems difficult to separate our apprehension of beauty from the lust to possess that beauty that seems innate — that seems to be what we inherit as part of the ‘human condition’ since the fall. And yet both Job and Paul seem to posit an alternative account of faithful engagement with God’s beautiful world. One that doesn’t leave us taking or grasping, but thanksgiving. Job famously (at least in terms of Christian accountability software) declared:

I made a covenant with my eyes
    not to look lustfully at a young woman.” — Proverbs 31:1

Presumably there’s a difference between looking at a beautiful young woman, and looking lustfully at a beautiful young woman that requires the exercise of the will as an act of faithfulness. Presumably David could’ve exercised that same faithfulness from the rooftop when he saw Bathsheba. Paul follows up his statement about the telos of creation (including beauty) with a diagnosis about the heart of sin. He sees the start of sin as a ‘wrong use’ of creation — or, basically, a deliberate rejection of the first two of the ten commandments.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

He also says this leads to ‘shameful lusts’ — our lust, or desires to do things with created beauty on our terms, flows from an inability to truly see God in his glorious goodness and for created beauty to be part of that picture. There’s a ‘right seeing’ of those things we then lust after, or desire on our terms. Whether we’re heterosexual or homosexual. Or, as he puts it in his first letter to Timothy, talking about people who want to draw particular boundaries to prevent idolatry by forbidding the right use of things God has made:

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. — 1 Timothy 4:3-5

The appropriate response to beauty is to avoid grasping-for-self — the Eve/David option, by thanksgiving-to-god.

I gave a talk recently on what this looks like with beer and sex. There’s some great stuff in Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness on this (review here), picking up on an article he wrote on lust and beauty that I’ve found exceptionally helpful personally and pastorally in terms of cultivating a different sort of ‘male gaze’. What does it look like to apply this framework to sexuality? And same sex attraction specifically.

If our sinful nature is a natural, fleshly, inherited, putting created things in God’s place — loving those things ‘inordinately’ — then that nature is, for all of us, worthy of God’s judgment. This includes heterosexual attraction if attraction is the same as lust, or exclusively sexual. Our sinful hearts — and the state of putting created things in the place of the creator means any actions, even apparently ‘licit’ actions, that flow out of that state of being, however ‘good’ they might be will be sin (all deeds that do not flow from faith are sin — Romans 14:23). This also means our fallen heterosexual attraction is not ‘good’, but will be tainted by our inordinate love of sex instead of God, or our pursuit of identity/meaning/significance in our sexuality (let’s call it ‘worship’ and let’s call that worship idolatrous). There isn’t a ‘straight’ morally upright sexual orientation, even if one’s behaviour lines up with God’s design (the theological label for this idea that our natures earn judgment, not just our actions — concupiscence — is a double edged sword that those of us who are ‘straight’ can’t just pick up and wield here).

Here’s the problem though with making ‘attraction’ or one’s orientation the equivalent with one’s sexual desires, not one’s predisposition to a certain sort of desire (in Paul’s terms, making it part of the sinful flesh rather than a distortion of the image of God in us)… I don’t have to repent of recognising that women who aren’t my wife are beautiful or attractive; I can thank God for that beauty and resist that ‘pull’ grabbing my heart and turning my mind towards lust. I have to repent when I objectify a beautiful woman who isn’t my wife and lust after her, and I have to guard my heart — by proactively loving God, and then my wife, in order to avoid my ‘sexuality’ being the centre of my identity — the driver of my personhood. When I say I’m attracted to women I don’t exclusively mean I lust after women, I mean that I’m drawn to appreciate the beauty of women in a way that I don’t appreciate the beauty of men. I can’t tell you what is a good cut for a male T-shirt, or reasonably predict which men on TV are considered ‘attractive’, but I can appreciate a nice dress or a beautiful woman; and I believe I can thank God for them in ways that reflect a certain sort of discipline instilled by the Spirit as it works to transform me.

When anyone, by the Spirit, is re-created as a worshipper of God, being transformed into the image of Christ, what seems to go on in terms of that worship is a re-ordering of our loves so that we love things in their right place. Paul comes back to the idea of worship, given to God, not created things in Romans 12 — instead of sacrificing everybody else for our desires we become, together, a ‘living sacrifice’ captured by the vision of God’s beautiful mercy to us. This absolutely involves a giving up of what we previously loved in God’s place for the sake of loving God — a re-ordering of our hearts so that creation serves its purpose again; revealing God’s divine nature and character.

Why is the ‘recognition’ of beauty or attraction between members of the same sex subject to a different standard? It’s because we’ve first committed to sexualising attraction. If we say ‘same sex attraction’ or to be ‘gay’ is always sexual; and so is impossible to split from lust (not just temptation) then adopting a gay identity would be to adopt and celebrate an aspect of our sinful, fallen, disordered selves. If this is the case then we need to check whether that’s a standard we apply to our own ‘attraction’ and how much our sexuality forms our identity if we’re going to play the identity game. But when a same sex attracted person says they are ‘gay’ and we jump to hearing it as describing, exclusively, a sexual preference and set of desires when they might first be describing an aesthetic orientation that produces those desires we’re not being consistent with how we view our own attraction, or actually listening to what is being said, at least this is the case in Wesley Hill’s own account of his attraction and experience, and what ‘gay’ means. Here’s what he told the Age:

Being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate . . . Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations  I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay.  My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends. 

Here he’s using ‘erotic’ the way James K.A Smith does — not just sexual, but sensual — as the sort of love that guides our interactions with God and his world. Hill’s writing in the magazine Smith edits, Comment, is some of the best writing on how to imaginatively pursue faithfulness to God via a traditional sexual ethic going round, he’s worth following (check out this piece on ‘jigs for marriage and celibacy’ for starters).

I think a category of aesthetics and beauty is sorely lacking in our theology; which leaves us oddly platonic (separating mind and body), and in weird legalism when it comes to relationships between non-married men and women (where we hyper-sexualise them so that men and women can’t be friends or alone together — and there’s a vicious cycle thing going on here where the sexualised culture we live and breathe in predicts that those sorts of circumstances will be sexualised). This then makes life for same sex attracted people in our churches almost impossible, who can they be in a room with?

What if ‘attraction’ is, before anything else, a predisposition to appreciate a certain sort of beauty? What if when somebody says they are ‘same sex attracted’ that includes sexual desire and lust as a result of our fallen hearts, but redemption of that attraction does not look like ‘turning it off’ but directing it to its telos — knowing the divine nature and character of the creator? This must necessarily mean encountering beauty on God’s terms, not through our idolatrous hearts that seek to possess beauty for ourselves as an object for our pleasure — making ourselves little gods who take and destroy others.

What if the goal of a same sex attracted Christian is holiness — a wholehearted devotion to God, including an appropriate response to the beauty that fires their hearts?

What if our inability to separate attraction from lust is a cultural issue that is the result of our perverted human hearts and the idolatry of sex (the idea that sexuality is the core of our personhood)?

But what if that is a misfire when it comes to beauty (the sort of misfire that means, when, for example, a father puts his hand on the chest of the nervous teenage girl in front of him the internet melts down and the meltdown continues even when it turns out he’s comforting his daughter because we sexualise all touch in our depraved imaginations)?

What if it is not that they stop recognising the created beauty of members of the same sex but they stop desiring that beauty in ways that reveal they don’t first desire God/holiness?

What if we were able to discipline ourselves across the board so that our ‘attraction’ is first a disposition towards the ordinary recognition of beauty in God’s good creation; recognising that this is then perverted by idolatry and disorder in a culture that idolises sexuality and individuality such that we’ve first invented a concept called ‘identity’ and then made sexuality central to it?

What if this was beneficial to all of us when it comes to understanding relationships with other people who we find beautiful.

What if the desire for male friendship and the recognition of male beauty is something our particular culture has beaten out of most heterosexual men, and what if that’s part of the problem? That I can’t conceive of a man as beautiful does prevent me from lusting after men, but it also prevents me rightly appreciating God’s artistry in the men in my life. What if my same sex attracted friends are open to more of that created goodness than I am, and so tempted in ways that I am not?

I think if we managed to move the conversation, and our practices, in these directions we’d have much better things to say about God, about human identity, and about the proper place of sex and sexuality in our lives (and personhood). I think we’d be able to better adorn the Gospel in our communities in such a way that relationships between men and women, women and women, and men and men were enhanced. I think we’d be more convincing when we talked to the world about sex and marriage. We’d tell a better story. As it is, we’ve bought into the same truncated humanity as the world around us and we’re unable to conceive of beauty and attraction without admitting that we’ll fall for it, so that the only way to be properly sexual (and thus properly human) is to marry, or turn off our recognition of God’s beautiful creation — including people.

And here’s the real rub. Our Side B brothers and sisters are at risk of being alienated by both sides of an increasingly polarised world. They are the most likely to face the ire of a world that believes the path to flourishing humanity is to authentically embrace and express your sexual desires. They are the most likely to be the public face of conversations around ‘conversion therapy’ even if they aren’t articulating anything like conversion to heterosexuality. They are also the ones we’re most likely to crucify because their experiences of sexuality are marginal within Christian community and so ‘outside our norms’ even as they prophetically question whether our norms have become worldly. These brothers and sisters are the prophetic voices we should be turning to in a world that idolises sex and sexual authenticity, and in this conversation we’ve turned on them.

It’s interesting that everybody wants to cite Augustine in this conversation. He’s a very helpful conversation partner here — and a particularly integrated thinker when it comes to how our loves shape our actions. Here’s two concepts from Augustine that should be in the mix — rightly ordered loves, and the maxim that ‘wrong use does not negate right use’…

Underneath our sinful decision to worship creation rather than the creator there’s a good creation that points people to the divine nature and character of God — that’s the ‘right’ love of creation; loving the creator first. The right love of male or female beauty is to thank God for it; I suspect there’s much my same sex attracted brothers can teach me about the goodness of God’s creation if they’re seeking to faithfully do this.

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Luke Cage and the captivating power of anger — how an American show about black liberation might help shift our approach to race in Australia

“Everybody’s talking about Luke Cage like he’s Jesus. You’ve got magazines calling him the bullet proof black man with Barack’s easy smile, Martin’s charm, and Malcolm’s forthright swagger… Harlem’s worship of Luke Cage has reached golden calf proportions. Luke Cage is soul brother number one. But I want you to ask yourself one thing. Luke Cage. Who is he really? Does he serve the Lord, or does he serve himself? … Luke Cage is nothing but a man, and there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.” — Rev Lucas, Luke Cage, Season 2, Episode 1.

Almost everybody in Luke Cage season 2 is angry. The whole season is an exploration of just how destructive the spiteful part of human nature is; and just how deeply rooted the cycle of anger and vengeance is in our psyche and how destructive it is when you can’t let go; when you can’t forgive. Anger doesn’t liberate; it captivates. There’s a sub-thread about just how hard it is to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into an angry environment too; but also just how redemptive breaking the cycle can be.

Luke Cage is an interesting exploration of a superhero informed by a ‘liberation theology’ styled-Jesus. The comparisons to Jesus in Luke Cage aren’t subtle like in many other stories set in the backdrop of the western world, they’re overt. This was true in season one, it’s contained in the origin story of Carl Lucas’ choice of ‘Luke Cage’ as a name — it’s a reference to the Gospel of Luke and the promise that Jesus came to liberate captives (Luke 4); the opening words of season two show there’s no signs of the messianic comparisons abating. We might be keen to distance ourselves from belief in the supernatural these days, but there’s no escaping the way the story of the Bible, and its prescient diagnosis of the human heart, has shaped our narratives. By the end of the season Luke Cage is Harlem’s Messiah — its ‘anointed king’ — the question is what sort of king he’ll be, and what part of its soul it’ll cost him.

“The preacher’s son. Even when you’re ugly, you are regal. Harlem’s gonna need a king. I’m glad it’s you.” — Mariah

The season picks up somewhere after the events of The Defenders, Luke is back pounding the streets of Harlem. Jessica Jones is off enjoying her season 2 hijinks (enjoying is a strong word). Danny Rand is patrolling other boroughs of New York as the Immortal Iron Fist (though he makes a fun cameo). Matt Murdock… well… the cut scene at the end of The Defenders has him in a monastery somewhere.

There’s a new battle for the streets of Harlem; a three-way fight (with a few extra parties like the police, and some rival gangsters thrown in the mix) all motivated by some form of anger, all allowing the shows writers to explore various forms of injustice — from Mariah Stokes who carries anger at past sexual abuse and a messed up family background which complicates her relationship with her daughter Tilda, to Bushmaster, who has returned from the Caribbean hell-bent on gaining revenge over the Stokes family because their wealth is built from the dispossession and murder of his ancestors, and Luke Cage who’s angry about his father, angry and angry about what Harlem’s criminal element costs his people.

The music in this season is sensational — Luke typically fights with ear buds in place breaking bones to the beat of various hip-hop tracks, Bushmaster’s attempts to conquer turf are accompanied by reggae, while Mariah’s plotting plays out against a sonic landscape of her club Harlem’s Paradise — typically blues. These two songs from Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram were spectacular.

But, music aside, the show is about anger and its power — anger as motivator — and how much it grips and distorts and destroys when our hearts, our nature, are impure… no matter how pure we think our hearts are, Rev. Cage is right, bulletproof skin doesn’t change a man’s nature. The problem for Luke is that he’s started to believe it’s his anger, not his strength and bulletproof skin, that is the source of his power. There’s a battle raging for his soul — and with it the soul of his kingdom, Harlem.

I’m a man, ok, full fledged. My anger is real. But if I can use that anger for intimidation and fear, to do work, then so be it. If I have to speak the language of those who would do others harm to make them stop, then so be it. — Luke Cage

The problem is that this ‘turn’, this ‘messianic vision’ can’t even bring those closest to him on board; and Luke has to decide if he’s in life for love and relationships, especially with Claire, or if he has bigger fish to fry…

“He’s going down a dark path, one that I’m not sure I can follow. He’s angry. He’s lost his purpose… he’s in a place where I can’t help him because I don’t know how…” — Claire, Season 2, Episode 3

The problem set up early in the series is whether or not this embracing of the darkness is going to leave Luke indistinguishable from those he seeks to save…

“Sometimes you have to step on a cockroach, I get it. But when you enjoy the stomping? What’s next? You become an exterminator?” — Claire

And while Luke is grappling with this identity crisis, the season’s anti-hero, Bushmaster is a picture of the fully-fledged embrace of darkness as he goes toe to toe with Mariah for control of the family — darkness against darkness, forcing Mariah, the carry-over villain from season one to raise the bar as she targets Bushmaster’s family; a family who had been urging him to turn his back on the vicious cycle of strength pitted against strength; violence against violence; an ‘eye for an eye’… at one point an abducted family member of Bushmaster’s, Anansi, stares down Mariah and articulates not just the war for Bushmaster’s heart, but for Luke’s.

“Anansi: I didn’t want him to destroy you the way the Stokes destroyed his family.
But now I see you with my own two eyes, and I understand the temptation.
Your darkness matching his.
You deserve all the brimstone he’s gonna bring upon you.
Mariah: Where is he?
Anansi: I don’t know. And I wouldn’t tell you even if I did. But I’ll tell you like I tell him. When one seek vengeance, he must dig two graves.
Mariah: That’s not enough holes for me.” — Episode 10

Luke’s soul is up for grabs in this series, and by the end, we’re not sure whether or not the darkness has taken over… is he Mariah’s heir a new angry oppressor, or a liberator? Is he a hero or a gangster?

“You really are Luke Corleone, aren’t you?” — D-Dub (President of Luke’s fan club)

There’s a great visual homage here, continuing the Godfather reference, where the newly enthroned Luke Cage is greeted at his desk by his new crew and Detective Misty Knight, who has placed such hope in him watches through a closing door.

Mariah (in a flashback, via her lawyer): You know the story of the Sirens? The beauty of their voices compelled men off course to crash against the rocks. This club will be his siren. He’ll be lulled by its song, lulled by so-called greatness.
Luke: She really said that?
Ben Donovan (the lawyer): “You can’t rule no kingdom from a barbershop,” is what she said to me.
Mariah: The preacher’s son will think he can use the roost to change things, to control it. But in the end it will change him.

There’s another great visual moment in the final episode where it appears Mariah’s prophecy might have bean realised; back in season 1, gangster Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes had a giant portrait of a crowned Biggie Smalls hanging on the wall in Harlem’s Paradise. Mariah replaced it, but Luke restored it to pride of place, mostly so these two shots could be framed to, perhaps, close the circle… 

The things we own end up owning us… could it be that Luke Cage is a ‘golden calf’ after all? Not a saviour of Harlem but an oppressor? Could it be that Luke’s dad was right when he said “there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.”

The war for Luke’s soul, the war for the heart of the ‘saviour king’ of Harlem, is still on in earnest, and with it a war for Harlem’s future… all the visual clues suggest the battle is raging, and that Carl ‘Luke Cage’ Lucas might have lost himself. The closing words, a flashback to a conversation Luke had with his father as they were reconciled, offer, perhaps, a note of hope that his soul might not totally be lost; that Luke might yet face a pressure test and be prepared to walk away from seeing anger as his power.

Your strength is from God, Carl.
I have no doubt in my mind about that.
But with that kind of power comes its share of pain.
Science? Magic? God? That power flows from within. From inside.
What comes out when that pressure is heaviest? That’s the real magic.
That’s what defines being a man.
That’s what defines being a hero. — Rev. Lucas

Luke Cage’s preacher dad has the first and last words this season. In my review of season 1 of Luke Cage I suggested that Luke Cage’s approach to messianic heroism was shaped, perhaps, by the sort of Black Liberation Theology that uses Luke 4 the way he does; the sort founded by theologian James Cone. Here’s a quote from A Black Theology of Liberation.

“In the New Testament, the theme of liberation is reaffirmed by Jesus himself. The conflict with Satan and the powers of this world, the condemnation of the rich, the insistence that the kingdom of God is for the poor, and the locating of his ministry among the poor–these and other features of the career of Jesus show that his work was directed to the oppressed for the purpose of their liberation. To suggest that he was speaking of a “spiritual” liberation fails to take seriously Jesus’ thoroughly Hebrew view of human nature. Entering into the kingdom of God means that Jesus himself becomes the ultimate loyalty of humanity, for he is the kingdom. This view of existence in the world has far reaching implications for economic, political, and social institutions. They can no longer have ultimate claim on human life; human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).”

The sort of rebellion against the powers he talks about here involves anger and, at times, according to Cone, permits violence. He writes some exceptionally provocative things about the status quo and racism, and there’s something about theology done from the black perspective that really does ‘re-embody’ Jesus and his teaching in a way that institutionalised, white, Christianity just doesn’t comprehend, let alone practice. He argues that if theology is neutral about oppression and oppressors, it is as bad as it being used to justify oppression, and this should be a challenge that the institutional church in the west, including in Australia, hears on issues of race…

The challenge Luke Cage leaves us grappling with a bit when it comes to issues of race and liberation, alongside Cone’s theology, is what place anger and violence have in solving the problem. Can you embrace the tools of the enemy without becoming the enemy? Is any human heart — even a heart moving from oppression, on behalf of the oppressed, ever avoid becoming an oppressor when handed power?

Cone recognised that anger alone would leave his movement ‘one armed’; that unfettered, it would lead to the sort of destruction Cage faces.

“Anger and humour are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to oppression, and humour prevents them from being consumed by their fury.” — James Cone

Luke needs to rediscover laughter; at least from Cone’s perspective. And there’s surely something in that, but perhaps the deeper problem Luke Cage presents via Luke’s apparent descent into the abyss is that violence begets violence, and angry oppressors rising up creates new oppressors; here is where someone like Martin Luther King Jr is a voice of resistance against a Christian theology of Luke Cage; an application of Luke 4, that includes violence. Less this become to reductionist, it’s worth pointing out that Cone does have a significant place for the cross in his theology; to take up one’s cross is to enter the ghetto alongside the oppressed, but the movement from that position is one of rising up in a sort of judgment against the oppressor (much like Luke Cage does in the series once his powers are secured and he re-enters Harlem). Here’s King on the problems of violence:

“My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigour and power as the violence resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” — Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom

Luke Cage as a text, and Cone and King as theologians have lots to teach us particularly on the issue of race. I think Cone is right about the problems with theology from institutional Christianity that upholds, or doesn’t challenge, status quos, and some of the critique of non-violence and the ‘violence’ of institutions built on the back of historic violence in his words at this link are worth sitting with, but I think King is closer to the solution when it comes to how those marginalised by our institutions should respond in ‘rebellion’… there’s obvious dangers with someone educated in such institutions, and employed by one — as I am — who is also white — as I am — prescribing solutions for those kept on the outer (not by ‘policy’ — our institutions don’t preclude indigenous participation — but by culture and so by practice — they do take shapes and involve requirements and even just behaviours and norms that we’ve ‘baptised’ that serve as barriers).

There’s a real danger that theology that doesn’t listen to voices from the margins is not Christian, but ‘Babylonian’ — that we prop up worldly status quos not intentionally but because we are ignorant; because we are not hearing the voices and experiences of those who are oppressed not just by worldly forces but our failure to speak and act against them. My own experience of listening to indigenous Christian leaders here in Australia over the last few years has been to be confronted with my ignorance of the indigenous experience of life in Australia; it has been to confront how I’ve, in substantial ways, benefited from being white in a white system and how this benefit ultimately comes at the expense of those peoples dispossessed by European settlement. It has involved being confronted with truths about Australia that are often white-washed from school curriculums. Try, for starters, reading this utterly confronting account of massacres of indigenous peoples in South Australia and the Northern Territory — for bonus points, try doing this as I did, having driven through the areas it speaks of a few weeks before where you can’t help but observe the economic gap between indigenous Australians in these areas and the white community both there and on the coasts. Then check out this project mapping massacres around the country. This stuff is enough to make me angry — imagine if I’d been dispossessed and impoverished just how angry I (or you) should be… then chuck a bulletproof and powerful hero into the mix there and tell that hero how to live, or what to do… I read Richard Flanagan’s recent speech calling for the re-imagination of Australia, and an Australian story that acknowledges this history and moves to something better, and it mentions the story of Jandamarra, a resistance fighter in the Kimberly region who was hunted by the colonial police. A hero for a time in Australia’s history where to be black meant to be shot at — much as in Luke Cage‘s harlem, and in the United States in the age of #blacklivesmatter — Jandamarra was thought to be bulletproof (it was believed he could dissolve his body so that bullets would pass through where he stood). Flanagan said:

“When the colonial police were hunting down the great Bunuba resistance fighter Jandamarra, they came to believe that he was, as the Bunuba said, a magic man. Many white settlers came to believe Jandamarra could fly and even police reports described bullets passing through his body. The Bunuba believed that a magic man could only be killed by another magic man, and so police brought one down from the territory and it was he who killed Jandamarra.

But who really won?

To defeat the Bunuba the whites had to enter their Dreaming, and accept their beliefs as the truth of the Kimberley. And in this way the story of the frontier is a story of birth as well as of killing, of values and mentalities changing as much as it is also of segregation, oppression and violence. If we can as a nation learn and understand some of these things we can also appreciate the second story which is as transcendent as the first is tragic, and that is a different story of the past, a story of glory.

This is a challenge outside the church, for our approach to our shared life to be shaped by listening to those voices typically excluded from the mix; but it’s also a challenge for the church. And there’s never been a better time for us, as an institution in our culture, to take up this challenge. We’re experiencing our own marginalisation in the culture — finally realising what it looks like not to have a seat at the table. We can approach this new reality in two ways — we could fight, we could get angry, we could look for our own bulletproof heroes (who’ll probably write columns in the Spectator), or we can do some self-assessment from this new perspective and consider what voices in our culture have been excluded from the table in part by us and start listening to them to hear how they’ve approached being marginalised while being followers of Jesus, to figure out how to chart an heroic way forward for the church, and perhaps for our country. We could start participating in public life as Christians not for our own interest, or to maintain or protect our place in society, but for the interest of these other groups. We don’t need to be bulletproof to be heroic; we just need to have our character revealed under pressure — and to reveal the character of Jesus, as described by Martin Luther King — as we’re marginalised would be a fine start.

There’s no doubt a few people who, if they’ve bothered reading this far, will suggest this, what I’m suggesting, is a path to theological liberalism, to letting go of the Gospel — but that’s not it. It’s very easy to dismiss voices from the margins, from outside our ‘orthodox’ institutions as liberal as a way of not listening or reforming (just consider how the Catholic Church responded to the reformers). It’s very easy to assume that our own experience of the world is normal and that we are ‘colourblind’ and so able to see Jesus truly, detached from our own subjectivity. Acknowledging our possible bias and the problem with institutions that stagnate somewhere near the centre of the status quo isn’t a call to liberalism.

It’s a challenge to let go of those places where we’ve brought the powers of this world into our approach to following King Jesus such that we can’t always tell the difference between Jesus and Caesar.

It’s a suggestion that our faithful brothers and sisters who aren’t part of our institutions be it voices from Australia, or Christians from other countries and cultures who already occupy the margins, might have some prophetic critiques of our practices and beliefs… That this might be akin to listening to the voices of faithful same sex attracted brothers and sisters, those committed to a traditional sexual ethic, when they critique our institutional practices (idolatry) of family and marriage. That these marginal voices are precisely the ones we should turn to in a world that idolises sex, marriage, and family because they are not part of that ‘status quo…

It’s a challenge to keep reforming and to realise that reform comes from the edge of institutions (ala the other Martin Luther) not from the centres of power. The voices that might sometimes be dismissed for being too angry…

It’s a challenge to have those voices and those experiences help us re-imagine the story of Jesus, without our particular cultural blinkers, and so re-image Jesus in how we live.

This is why I continue to be blown away by my indigenous Christian friends who aren’t consumed by anger, but rather continue to offer hope and invitation centred on re-making and re-imagining an Australia that deals with this past, but also looks to a future, particularly a future shaped by the cross of Jesus. If we want to be part of that future, as a church, perhaps it’s time we start deliberately carving out space to hear these voices rather than allowing our educational and church practices to keep maintaining the status quo.

How beer and sex are proof that God is good and wants what is best for us

I gave a talk at Griffith University’s Mount Gravatt and Nathan campuses today for Griffith Christian Students. It was titled “How beer and sex are proof that God is good and wants what is best for us”.

Here’s the transcript (this approach was very much inspired by Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing).


I want to start by asking you to use your imaginations.

Imagine you’re in love.
You’ve met the perfect person.
You’ve flirted.
You’ve been out for coffee.
You’ve had that awkward first date; and desire has awakened. You think this person might be ‘the one’…
The fires are lit. Metaphorical ones. There’s a part of you that is newly aroused — hoping for new possibilities… There’s anticipation in every touch, every moment of your skin brushing against theirs. The thrill of the chase — and of being chased… It’s like a dance…
You enjoy a nice dinner together; there are candles.
You find yourself together; alone at last; the barriers between you coming down. You feel safe to be yourself, shameless.
You come together. Your bodies joined. Your skin tingles. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Your breath quickens…
For a fleeting moment you experience ecstasy. Pure bliss. You wish it could last forever…
You’re left wondering when the next time will be. Imagining it. Chasing it. Fantasising or researching how to extend that feeling… That bliss…
It feels like Heaven.

For some of you this story is a future hope — you are waiting for someone, somewhere, who’ll flesh this out for you… For others here it might be last weekend… Last month… For some of us this is the sort of illicit fantasy that might both thrill us and leave us feeling a bit dirty. Ashamed. Especially if you’ve grown up hearing Christians only ever talk about sex in hushed tones or about purity and sin… About the “price tag” sex has… It’s also the plot of just about every romance movie or novel ever written…

Here’s another story.

Imagine there’s a party. All your friends are there. There’s bunting, hipster lighting, the music is on point. There’s dancing. Laughter. You’ve never been funnier; you’ve never heard conversations that stimulate your imagination like this; you’ve never looked better. The food is amazing — dish after dish brought out for you to enjoy, it’s like someone gave you their Uber Eats account and said ‘go nuts’… And the beer. It’s not that cheap nasty stuff that students survive on… This is some hipster micro-brewed craft stuff — it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. There’s complexity in every sip — flavours you can’t quite describe, it’s like the word for them appears on the tip of your tongue and then disappears only to be replaced with some other exotic idea. You feel the warmth of the alcohol working its way through your system — what was already a great night is suddenly even better. You’re totally relaxed. You have another sip and the coolness of the beer as it hits the back of your throat is exceptionally refreshing. The sun is setting — you want to capture this moment forever. Instagram won’t do it justice. This feels like heaven…

For some of you this story is the picture of the party you went to last weekend — or it’s the party you hope to throw. Some of you can’t stand the taste of beer or understand why anybody would bother, some of you have decided not to drink alcohol for very good reasons… Some of you are possibly not old enough to legally drink… I’d invite you to replace the beer in this scene with the best version of whatever drink it is that you enjoy.

The point is, there are all sorts of good things in this world that give us pleasure. That satisfy us. Sensual experiences that excite us, leave us hungry for more, and that might even lead to an addiction… And so I want to ask this afternoon…

“What’s the point?”

Do sex and beer have a point beyond themselves? An ‘end’ in the philosophical sense to which they are a means, are they just pointing to themselves as a source of a particular sort of pleasure?

What’s the point of pleasure? Our bodies are hardwired to receive it; to be stimulated by it; to enjoy pleasures — there’s a link between sensuality and our senses.

Why is that?

Where are you looking for pleasure? Where are you looking for satisfaction?

I want to make the case this afternoon that there’s a reason these sublime moments — the taste of joy via our senses — sex with a lover or a stunningly good beer — there’s a reason these fleeting moments feel like heaven.

It’s because they were made to by a good God; and more than that, that there is a purpose to these pleasures, and that’s to point us towards Heaven. Towards a connection — a relationship — with him as our loving and good creator.

I want to suggest there’s at least three bits of evidence for this claim —

One. The problems that come when we see these pleasures as “ends” in themselves, and build our lives around them.

Two. What the Bible says about God and his creation and what it is for, and that these pleasures are even better when we listen to him.

Three. And that better than that, we will truly flourish if instead of fixating on these pleasures — being captivated by them — we look along them to what they point to — this eternal reality.

The first two points are points you might even be able to leave today pondering and agreeing with without accepting the third; but the third is where the real punch is for Christians…

In a nutshell, what I’m claiming is that good sex and good beer are a taste of the good life with God for eternity; that being one with God is a greater source of intimacy and pleasure than a fleeting, orgasmic, moment here on earth — an eternal orgasm even… And that the best most fleeting bits of pleasure that come from food and drink now are a taste of the abundance of God — the banquet he prepares for us to enjoy eternally in a new creation — and that these things are meant to point us to God now, the danger is that because our hearts are turned away from God and towards ourselves — we take these pleasures and instead of directing them where they were made to be we pursue them for our own sake and end up owned by them; captivated… Enslaved… And so they lose their lustre as they lose their connection to their God-given purpose.

I’m saying that we get into trouble when it comes to beer or sex when we look at them as a source for satisfaction rather than looking through them… Imagine that I gave you a pair of glasses now and you had to choose between looking at them and looking through them — they might be an exceptional piece of craftsmanship and optometry so that you can appreciate them as glasses, but it’s only when you look through them and they correct your sight that they’re doing what they were made to do. This is the difference between seeing sex and beer… Or other pleasures… As ends to pursue with your life, and seeing them as a means to an ends.

The Dark Side of beer and sex
There are obvious problems when we look for heaven on earth — and these are problems that reveal a dark side of our hearts.

We’re not just wired to experience pleasure; we’re hardwired to love, to pursue some picture of a good life, to build our lives so that we’re living in some sort of story where we want a happy ending and we choose what that ending looks like by choosing what we love. Sociologists and scientists have started writing about the power of story in terms of what makes us human; it’s story making, story telling, and story keeping that sets us apart from the animal kingdom — the ability to give meaning to our experience of pleasure and then organise our lives around the pursuit of some good things flows out of this part of our humanity. We dream in stories — our subconscious, when left to its own devices, tells stories — and they’re stories where we are at the centre, we are the hero, this isn’t just a sub-conscious thing, it’s our experience of the world… We’re naturally wired to put ourselves first and to assume that we are the centre of reality because we are the centre of our own reality; our own experience. Some Christian theologians who saw the danger of this way of life described this reality — the reality that we are lovers and self-centred-story-tellers — as our hearts being curved in on themselves — even when love flows out from us towards a person, or a pleasure, it’s for our own good, our own joy, our own satisfaction… This is basically what the Bible calls sin, it suggests that instead of curving in on ourselves; instead of first being lovers of self and so lovers of the things that give us pleasure, we were made to be lovers of God and have that love shape everything else.

The consequences of this new natural inclination, our loves, being shaped like this, are disastrous… And sex and beer prove this…

Let’s talk about sex…

If you approach the goodness of sex, and sexual pleasure, with yourself at the centre then even in a relationship, one built on commitment and love, your relationship — and the sex within it — will be built around your pleasure, on your orgasms, the other person in your relationship will be there for your pleasure; a servant even… There are more destructive versions of this story…

Let’s assume you don’t want commitment and the responsibility it brings — that you’re part of the Tinder generation and more interested in hook ups, in pleasure with no strings attached… At that point while there might be mutual moments of bliss, sex has become a transaction, the other person purely a means with sexual pleasure as an end, with no greater purpose. It becomes hollowed of anything significant; it’s not part of the bringing two people together like the story we imagined at the start… It’s someone you might never see again — not even a friend with benefits… Sure, a Tinder hookup might lead to something more long term, but the mechanism is designed to make sex as frictionless as possible.

But for the people who can’t get a ‘swipe right’ — or the people who aren’t satisfied by the amount of sex or pleasure delivered in their encounters with a partner there’s porn and prostitution…

Now; while you might be here not thinking there’s anything inherently wrong with porn or prostitution, and while you might be expecting me to ride some Christian moral high horse at this point — quite apart from the question of sin, which is where they land according to the Bible, there is real harm done to women in both these industries — they aren’t the liberating, empowering, things that the Sex Party claims they are…

Porn rewires your brain and resets your expectations for real world relationships — counsellors and medical professionals have started telling horror stories of teenage girls being pressured into violent sex acts by their porn addicted boyfriends — but it’s worse than that, some research suggests a link between the desensitising effect of pornography when it comes to normal ‘in the flesh’ relationships and both an inability to orgasm in normal sex, or premature orgasm amongst those who use porn for a ‘quick fix’… Porn kills love. It kills sex. It removes any chance of a ‘greater’ end for sex, and turns it into a means to a quick release; where your imagination is reshaped so that your partner is simply the object of your fantasy — typically women are being turned into objects of the ‘male gaze’ — I heard a filmmaker, a woman, talking on the radio the other day about how the ‘male gaze’ in normal movies means women and their desirability are almost always presented on male terms, which means a male standard of beauty and sexuality is presented to our culture — porn takes this and amplifies it in a way that is destructive… To both men and women…

Then there’s the relationship between prostitution and the pornography industry and sex slavery — the women on screen, or in brothels are often trafficked; brought to the west on promises of liberty and prosperity and locked in places by lies and threats, forced to perform sexual acts for meagre financial return, and no love.

When we approach sex from ‘dark hearts’ — hearts curved on ourselves — as an ‘ends’ or for our own pleasure — we hurt others and we hurt ourselves. It’s not just those ‘moral high-horses’ that Christians like to whip so often that makes this case — it’s the #metoo phenomenon that reveals again what men with power do to women with that power, and it’s the staggering rate of sexual abuse on university campuses and in the world beyond the campus… And cultural issues around consent…

Add our darkened hearts around sex to the impact of those same hearts on how power plays out in systems and structures and the interactions of individuals and there’s a real ugliness to how sex is used in our world.

Sometimes one person’s pursuit of Heaven produces an experience like Hell for another person.

You can make the same case, or a similar one, with beer by pointing to alcoholism, alcohol fuelled violence, the effect of binge drinking, drink driving, and the link between excessive alcohol consumption and heart disease — the biggest killer in Australia. There’s, on the flip side, some evidence that moderate drinking actually provides a degree of protection from the heart disease thing — you can have too much of a good thing.

The point is we’re made to love and to pursue life by choosing what to love and if we put sex or beer or pleasure at the centre of our love rather than people or God, then that desire for pleasure warps all our other relationships, and starts to deform our bodies and our experience of life in the world. If I had time I’d argue that putting people in that central spot rather than God produces a similar warping of all our other relationships while loving God ultimately transforms our relationships with others, but that’s another talk… Because what I really want to talk about is how putting beer and sex in their right place transforms our relationship and helps us see the goodness and love of God.

The bright side (created for pleasure)
Sex and the raw ingredients of beer are made by God for our enjoyment — but our rejection of God’s design; and of God’s place in our hearts distorts that good design.

The story of the Bible begins with God telling people to have sex — to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; with his declaration that it isn’t good for us to be alone, and with the creation of marriage. God made us as sexual beings and part of the Christian account for how and why our bodies experience pleasure is to affirm that God wanted sex to be pleasurable.

The first pages of the Bible also have God giving people plants to nourish us, and the instruction to cultivate and create with the good things he made in the world as we reflect his creativity — that’s part of what the Bible means when it says we’re made in the image and likeness of the creator. I’m not sure what better product you can make from the combination of grains and hops, but people have been making beer for a long, long, time.

Christians have been known for being anti-beer and anti-sex — at times we’ve overreacted to some of the bad stuff we’ve just outlined above… And chosen to say no instead of saying yes to these good parts of God’s creation. The Bible warns about loving created things more than we love God — and about the disasters that follow for us when we choose to put those things at the centre of our lives, but it doesn’t say we should reject those created things to avoid loving them too much; it says we should see them as revealing God’s nature — that’s in Roman — and that we should receive them with thanksgiving — we should look through the glasses and see God and the world as it really is, rather than looking at the glasses and seeing them as ‘the main attraction’…

The apostle Paul, who wrote heaps of the New Testament, gets a bad-wrap as a killjoy; but he warned against the sort of people who’d turn up saying we should reject good gifts from God to stay ‘pure’ — he writes to his friend Timothy, and in the same letter that he tells him to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine”… He talks about this sort of person who he says will:

“… Forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” — 1 Timothy 4:3-4

For the Christian, these good things God made are meant to prompt us to turn to the creator, to love God above the things he has made and see these good things as loving gifts from a creator that we should thank him for… Part of ‘receiving them with thanksgiving’ is receiving them on the terms set out by the creator in his user’s guide — the Bible — you can’t truly receive something with thanksgiving at the same time as flipping off the giver… So the Bible suggests alcohol in moderation will bring pleasure and be good for us, and Jesus even turned water into incredible wine as his first miracle… And it says the best place for the best sex is in a marriage, which it describes as built on unity, mutual service, and love. This is the antidote to making sex all about your own pleasure — for it to be an expression of love… And not just love as some ‘curved back to ourselves’ thing we do for our benefit or advantage, but love defined as ‘self-giving’, the sort of love that puts the pleasure of your spouse above your own pleasure… And that doesn’t just emphasise ‘one off’ moments of bliss, but a lifetime pursuit of togetherness…

Plus… It turns out, that according to a bunch of studies, over the course of life, married people — people who stay married — have much more sex than people who either aren’t married or who leave a marriage. If sex is a taste of heaven, then marriage is the best way to enjoy this part of life.

So that’s point two — God made sex and the ingredients we make beer with — and he wants us to enjoy them in ways that bring us joy not destruction; in ways that lead us to thank him because he is good… And if you want to pursue the goodness of sex and beer this seems from the various observations and bits of anecdata i’ve laid out so far, to be best pursued in something like the way the Bible describes rather than being pursued wholeheartedly — from hearts darkened by self-interest where this pursuit of pleasure comes at the expense of ourselves and those around us.

I can’t imagine anyone seriously trying to argue that excess is better than moderation on the beer front, given the serious social, scientific and medical evidence to the contrary… And I suspect the same is true about stacking up ‘less sex with lots of people’ against ‘lots of sex with a person you love’… As a vision of a ‘satisfying’ or ‘good’ life…

The good life in Jesus 
So here’s the trickier case to make — that beer and sex and the pleasures they deliver are a taste of Heaven; that there’s a reason those stories at the start are stories of heavenly experiences — and that’s that these pleasures aren’t an end in themselves; that they aren’t just things to thank God for or to enjoy on their own terms — that they don’t just point to God’s goodness in themselves — but that they point to something bigger than themselves — that they aren’t just a nice pair of glasses but that they help us see something true and grand…

I want to suggest that those two stories we imagined at the start — that story of intimate, erotic, love — the unity of two people culminating in orgasmic bliss, and that story of a party where the food and drink flow abundantly in ways designed to excite us — these two sensual stories — are actually two pictures the Bible gives us of eternal life with God in the sort of relationship the Bible invites us to enjoy with Jesus… That our fleeting experiences of bliss now aren’t just meant to push us to thanksgiving to God because he is good, but that they are meant to pull us towards this eternal reality; they are meant to leave us breathlessly wanting more… And some of the dark sides of our pursuit of pleasure through beer and sex are the result of these eternal desires being applied to temporary solutions that leave us craving more; things that can’t bear the weight of our longings because these longings are actually created to connect us with God… I want to invite you to make the switch from pursuing satisfaction and ultimate meaning in things that can’t deliver — in sex and beer — and switch to seeking satisfaction in Jesus and seeing sex and beer as good things from a good God best enjoyed on God’s terms…

This might seem abstract — the idea you can replace a concrete reality like your experience of pleasure via your flesh with something abstract like loving and being loved by a God you can’t feel with your senses; but the abstract idea actually changes the ‘concrete’ realities in ways that are better for you, and connects you with something eternal and beyond our limited comprehension. It’s something that works for Christians all over the world, and throughout history. It’s also part of what makes us weird… What makes the world seem ‘weird’ to Christians is the apparent determination to keep looking for satisfaction in temporary things and fleeting moments of bliss if the ‘real thing’ is real…

This might seem like a long bow to draw if it wasn’t for the evidence on how destructive asking sex and beer to bear the weight of our apparently insatiable desires obviously is.. To us as individuals, and to our society… And it’d be ridiculous if we weren’t actually taking the Bible on its own terms.

One way to understand the story of the Bible is to think of it as the story of God pursuing a beautiful lover — the Old Testament is full of language that describes God’s people as his bride; and then as an unfaithful prostitute — it’s the story of God seeking to rescue and redeem his beloved from the clutches of an evil dragon; the stuff our romantic fairy tales are made from — the Bible talks about God’s people as ‘the bride of Jesus’ and about his return as the wedding day; the moment two become one — the moment we are united with Jesus in blissful, eternal, sacrificial love. The barriers down. Shame gone. Pursued by God through the history of the world and brought to that moment where he delights in us as we delight in him. Here’s how the Bible describes this scene, just after the king, Jesus, has defeated the dragon, Satan:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.” — Revelation 19:6-8

The coming of ‘heaven’ in the Bible is a wedding between the lamb, Jesus, and his bride, the church. It’s a party where the food and drink are abundant… It’s the culmination of a romance — right from the start of the Bible weddings are about union; about blissfully becoming one.

Our experiences of unity and oneness and bliss in this world are a pointer; an entree; a ‘taste of heaven’ — they’re something not to look at, but to look through towards what heaven is really like.

And here’s the revolutionary part of looking at these temporary pleasures this way — knowing that they are not ultimate, it means that those of us who are captured by this vision, who choose to order our lives and the pursuit of pleasure around the belief that God, as creator, and Jesus as God’s redeeming king, are the source of the ‘good life’ that we should put them first in our hearts, and order the rest of our relationships and experiences around this commitment… Ordering our love this way means we love people and things and pleasures differently; it means a re-prioritising of our approach to beer and sex that might involve us freely choosing to not pursue them because we’re happy to approach them on God’s terms, according to his design, because we’ve taken hold of the idea that there is something better. It frees us to be radically different in a world where so many of the people around us define their lives, in terms of how satisfying they are, based on how much sex — how many orgasms — they’re getting or how drunk they are on the weekend… It frees some Christians who won’t, or don’t marry to not feel like they are less human than others, but instead that they’ve been caught up in a story that will lead to eternal bliss, and in turn that produces a less destructive approach to sex and power and abuse in this world… This may be the story of some people here — and you need to know you’ve grasped hold of the best and most satisfying thing if you’ve grasped hold of Jesus — no finite thing compares to the infinite bliss promised to you if the Christian story is true… Those who take this path are still embodied; still wired for pleasure; still sexual even, but the ‘ends’ of their sexuality is not some limited, fleeting, moment of bliss — or the accumulation of such moments — it’s not a dirty part of us that can only be made ‘pure’ in procreation or abstinence — it’s part of our humanity that is like a homing signal pointing us towards the God who loves us intimately and asks for our faithful love in return… Who promises to satisfy our desires with good things…

This new vision of satisfaction also frees some Christians who observe the damaging effects of alcohol in their own lives or the lives of others to practice abstaining… This might be some of you here, and you need to know that as good as a craft beer is, you’re not missing out on much and there are plenty of sensational sensual alternatives to enjoy…

Christians don’t take these paths because we want to say ‘no’ to a good thing, but in order to demonstrate that we’re saying ‘YES’ to something better. We don’t want to take good things on our own terms in rejection of God because we believe that leads to disaster… both here and now, and for eternity.

Sex and beer are great gifts from God; they point to his goodness as the creator of both our bodies and our ability to experience bliss… Joy… Pleasure…. And they point to the reality that real satisfaction for our desires is not found in ‘created things’ but in the creator, through his love story; his proposal; to us in the life and love of Jesus. The real ‘taste of heaven’ is heaven itself…

,

A letter to the Queensland Government regarding the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

The Queensland Government is considering a new bill to decriminalise abortion. I wrote a pretty lengthy piece for church on how any legislation in this area is complicated because it touches on how we, as a society, define personhood, and how we choose who gets ‘human rights’ before we then stack the rights of the mother up against the rights of the child. Abortion is a pretty complicated issue and it’s multi-factorial — there’s much more going on than can be solved simply with legal solutions, and the church’s public stance on sexual ethics (and thus unwanted pregnancies) has left us as complicit with abortion as those who allow it. We’re also bad at imagining solutions beyond legislation — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak about legislation when the moment arises. Two of my brilliant colleagues, Andrea and Vicki wrote pieces exploring these issues.

I’ve been asked why abortion (and the sanctity of life) is a different issue to marriage equality (and the sanctity of marriage), which is a great question that I’d love to unpack. And my basic answer is that it both is and isn’t different; my approach to speaking into the political sphere as a Christian is consistently to articulate a Christian perspective and recognise that we are not a Christian nation and that our views have no special place in the legislative approach chosen by our government — who must balance all the views at the shared table. A Christian perspective is one built from the idea that, for the Christian (and in reality), Jesus is Lord, and that our loyalty, within a democracy (or anywhere) is to him first. Our reason for speaking for a Christian view is that we believe it is better for all people because God is the loving creator. Our challenge is that other views of creation (idolatry) will need to be accommodated by the laws in a secular, pluralist, democracy; and such a democracy, that holds competing views together in tension, will always by default lean towards one view and attempt to accommodate, or make space for, as many others as it can.

Our case for or against any change is not served by spreading misinformation; and having read the Bill and the report from the Queensland Law Reform Commission that produced it, I’m appalled by some of the misinformation being circulated by the pro-life side. I’ve seen claims that the legislation allows sex selection, the death of children born alive during the process, and partial birth abortion. The last claim is the most obvious form of misinformation; the Bill does not mention partial birth abortion because the report suggests a partial birth abortion is neither an abortion, nor murder, but fits within its own definitional category in the Criminal Code).

The report says:

“Provisions like section 313(1) were intended to fill the gap between the offences of unlawful termination (which apply to a fetus) and unlawful homicide (which applies to a child born alive).”

The relevant section of the Criminal Code says:

“Any person who, when a female is about to be delivered of a child, prevents the child from being born alive by any act or omission of such a nature that, if the child had been born alive and had then died, the person would be deemed to have unlawfully killed the child, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for life.”

The report acknowledges that there’s an ambiguity here when it comes to abortion, so the Bill recommends an amendment to s313, to make it clear that terminations are not the same thing as ‘preventing a child being born alive’. It doesn’t specifically say anything about the surgical procedures involved that either allow or disallow partial birth abortions. And while, if the unborn child is a person from conception, there’s no moral difference when it comes to the methods of procuring an abortion anyway, it is important that when discussing a topic that is rightly one where the emotions are at play, and where the outcome matters, that we get our facts straight. There’s a massive grey area on the question of partial birth termination, but that’s not the same as suggesting it’s a built-in feature of the Bill. One problem with the Bill is that there are just two many grey areas that mean different emotional arguments from all sorts of scenarios become possible arguments, but this doesn’t make them good arguments any more than the grey areas make good law.

I’d recommend reading the QLRC report (where the Presbyterian Church of Queensland submission even gets quoted). It’s 300+ pages long, but if you’re going to enter a conversation it’s worth holding an informed position. Especially if the issue matters.

Here’s a letter where I attempt to hold these things in balance. You might like to write your own.


To the Hon Yvette D’ath MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice and the Hon Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier and Member for South Brisbane,

Re: Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

I am a Presbyterian Minister, leading a congregation in Ms Trad’s electorate of South Brisbane. I’ve long been an admirer of her engagement in the community of South Brisbane and particularly her concerns for the vulnerable members of her electorate — our neighbours.

The recent proposed changes to laws regarding termination of pregnancies in Queensland are causing some concern within the Christian community, and not a small amount of misinformation is being circulated by pro-life groups. I’ve been urged to oppose changes to the legislation because the new bill allows abortions on the basis of ‘sex selection’, and that it will allow partial birth abortions or even post-birth abortions where a fetus survives the process and is left to die, unwanted. This is disturbing to many within the community (beyond the boundaries of religious groups). As I read the proposed Bill from the Law Reform Commission I could find no evidence to support such emotional claims, but also nothing to refute them.

As a leader within the Christian community it seems that the best pathway to a civil conversation on what is not a small or simple issue requires clear information, especially in response to misinformation — especially when the moral weight of such misinformation must surely lead many decent people to oppose the bill. I’m writing to ask that in the course of the public conversation you devote time and energy to both hearing from those worried by these changes, and to correcting the record with as much clarity and charity as possible.

It seems to me that the discussion around the legislation of abortion is not helped by references to marginal cases (from either side), but also that such marginal cases are inevitably part of the discussion. I watched a speech from Ms Trad on the ABC’s Facebook page where she said:

“When the other side say that what we are campaigning for is the right to carry an unborn baby for 38 weeks and then go to a doctor and say we want an abortion is bullshit. It is 100% bullshit.”

I’m concerned that while Ms Trad identifies a gross misrepresentation of the views of those seeking legislative change, any approach to a complex ethical issue built on statements about ‘the other side’ are likely to create an adversarial basis for discussions. One can grant that the legislative changes are seeking to aid women in enormously complicated medical and emotional circumstances without accepting the premise that generalised laws should be made for marginal cases. The proposed legislation is much broader than required those situations as they arise. I am concerned that the proposed limits in the legislation for terminations beyond 22 weeks are fairly vague, where they could be much more specific.

That’s not to say that those of us in religious communities within the community are only concerned about terminations after 22 weeks, which involve the more emotionally disturbing surgical termination (and as a result open up concerns about partial birth abortions, and infant survival beyond the process). The report from the QLRC, which produced the draft bill, provides a relatively black and white position on what it acknowledges is a complicated and contested question.  In deciding whether to recommend abortion ‘on demand’ or the ‘combined approach’ the bill adopts, the QLRC acknowledged various objections to abortion on demand from religious groups (including the Presbyterian Church of Queensland), and those supporting a ‘combined approach,’ which typically argued from the rights of the mother. The report cited a submission from the Australian Lawyers For Human Rights which, in arguing for no limit, made the point that isolating any moment in the gestation period as a point at which the fetus gained human rights and legislating from there is an arbitrary decision:

“Specifying criteria for termination according to different gestation periods is arbitrary, and fails to consider the individual circumstances of each case.”

I would agree with the arbitrary nature of specifying criteria, but suggest that a rush to individualise the considerations around particular cases ignores general principles that our legislative framework must uphold (and indeed the sort of ‘general principles’ required to establish generalities like universal human rights. I would humbly suggest that it is precisely because making such a distinction is arbitrary that we might consider drawing such a point earlier than viability, rather than later.  The report, in Appendix D, also makes the claim:

“Determining the moral status of the fetus or unborn child is contentious. It cannot be resolved by medical facts.”

If extreme cases make for bad law, then I wonder if another axiom might be thrown into the mix — legislation that doesn’t have settled ‘first principles’ also makes bad law. While I recognise that the rights of the woman are an important consideration, laws regarding termination (and that such laws have not been established in Queensland prior to 2018) have always been contentious because deciding when a human life becomes a ‘person’ the law should protect is not easy. The contest of rights between mother and child cannot simply be solved by assertion, and the report itself acknowledges that religious and philosophical reasoning must be brought to bear on this question that medical science alone cannot answer; and so I was concerned to hear Ms Trad dismiss religious objections being raised to the Bill when she said:

“That is the shameful act — to elevate these women’s lives and these women’s circumstances and to use it as a political platform for their absolutely fringe religious perspectives here is outrageous.”

These are not so much fringe religious perspectives as perspectives on the nature of human life that have shaped the approach to human rights, including the rights of the mother, that we enjoy in the western world. For good, and for ill, our approach to personhood in the western world has been profoundly shaped by the Christian teaching that all people are made in the image of God, and thus have inherent dignity (traditionally from conception), and the command from Jesus to “love your neighbour as you love yourself.” It is this axiom that led the early church to, in practice, oppose the abortion-on-demand culture of Rome, a first century Christian document, The Didache, contains specific teachings about how the church was practice this command, which included, specifically, a command not to have abortions, and as the Christian view of life became the dominant one in Rome, and then the west, this view of the unborn child as a neighbour became enshrined in practice, philosophy, and law. From the earliest practices of the church, through to the influence of these practices on our laws (and the establishment of rights for women and children), the church has been seeking to apply the teaching of Jesus to a belief that life begins at conception. These are not ‘fringe religious perspectives’ but a particular position on an issue that Queensland Law Reform Commission acknowledges is complicated.

Because Christians believe the unborn child is a person from conception there is a heightened amount of passion and emotion brought to the conversation about legislation; for us the images brought to our imagination when discussing surgical terminations after 22 weeks are profoundly the same as the idea of the ‘surgical termination’ of a newborn, whose right to life the state rightly protects. While Ms Trad rightly makes the case that nobody takes these decisions lightly, and they almost always tragedy, the legislation does not provide adequately explicit limits on the sort of cases where surgical terminations might be performed; and the distinction between a surgical termination performed at some point prior to 22 weeks and afterwards is, as the report acknowledges, totally arbitrary. How can those who hold this view of the humanity and personhood of the fetus possibly stand by and still believe they are upholding the command of Jesus to love our neighbours? For these weighty questions or scenarios to be dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe’ does not allow the sort of civil discussion required for the formation of good law based on the sort of consideration our pluralist, secular, democracy requires.

The influence that inherently Christian views should have on legislation in a modern secular state is, of course, open to debate. I’m not writing with the expectation that the particular views of my religious tradition be enshrined in the law, but rather to request that they not be summarily dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe religious perspectives’ in weighing up questions of when a human is viewed as a person (the criteria we use here, which are philosophical, will have profound ‘first principles’ implications for all sorts of lawmaking). I would urge you both, and the Labor Party, to reconsider the arbitrariness of drawing a line on where a fetus is a person, and as a result, draw the line to confer both personhood and human rights on the unborn child much earlier, and thus to weigh those rights carefully.

I’m also writing to suggest that the laws regarding conscientious objection and the necessary referral to other practitioners are not so straightforward. In my conversations with medical professionals within our Christian tradition I’ll be suggesting that part of ‘disclosing an objection’ is an opportunity to explain the basis for such an objection, to persuade our community that the best version of our society is one where Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ shapes all we do, that to simply refer a patient to termination by another where you believe the life of a person involved is to become a bystander in the killing of an unborn person. When Jesus affirms the command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’, he tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan — the one who stepped in to a complex situation to help after two others (religious leaders) had chosen to be bystanders in the situation. If such a stance is not protected or envisaged by the current framing of the bill then it does not actually protect the conscience of the practitioner but impinges on it such that they are essentially forced to adopt the definition of personhood not-clearly-defined by the Bill.

I recognise that churches have a long way to go in making alternatives to termination plausible, and that our ‘pro-life’ stance often does not extend to the community based support we offer mothers in emotionally and socially vulnerable situations, such that we demonstrate a concern for the rights of the mother, and I also recognise that there are many medically and socially complex cases where decriminalisation of abortion and the provision of clear medical guidelines for practitioners is important, but I do not believe this Bill provides the clarity or limits required for it to make good law for those circumstances.

Ms Trad has been exceptional at loving our neighbourhood in many other spheres, recognising the inherent dignity of many people our society chooses to walk by, and I thank her for that. I would love to have a further conversation with Ms Trad to listen to her perspective, and to outline the objections of the religious members of her electorate and the wider community, trusting that such a dialogue would limit our capacity to see our neighbour as a despicable ‘other’ and that dialogues like this are the basis of producing better, and more inclusive, legislation. Christians are also called to pray for our leaders, and I write to assure you both of my prayers as you, and the government, weigh up the best way forward on this issue.

Sincerely,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Campus Pastor — Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank.

If we’re going to talk about the ‘image of God’ in a foreign language let’s get it right: or why I’m more interested in the ‘selem elohim’ than ‘imago dei’

There is no theological topic I read about as much as what it means to be made in the image of God; it was the question at the heart of my thesis, but my obsession didn’t end when I graduated. It’s a question at the heart of what Christians believe it means not just to be human but to flourish as humans; and the answers to the question have been used to achieve many great things for societies influenced by Christians. There’s no doubt that being made in God’s image is part of what sets us apart from animals, and part of what gives us dignity and an inherent value (see Genesis 9:6) — there are questions about what sort of dignity it carries or what it entails to bear God’s image, and how much we as humans can deliberately or accidentally eradicate that image in pursuit of our own purposes (and very clear evidence about what happens when we refuse to see fellow humans as image bearers).

In church tradition and in the developments of doctrine or ‘systematic theology’ there has been much ink spilled on what it means for humans to be the imago dei — that’s Latin for ‘image of God’. The early church, once it got established and there were people who had the time and space to be theologians, wrote in Latin so there’s plenty of latinisms hanging around in systematic theology/doctrine discussions still. Sometimes the development of systematic theology fails to take into account developments in Biblical scholarship; and I’m pretty firmly in the camp that our theological understanding of the world comes from always going back to the source (ad fontes — in Latin), the Bible, rather than from church tradition (though church tradition does limit totally novel and heretical readings of the source material).

Lots of the stuff I read that digs into what it means to be the ‘imago dei’ is built from church traditions rightly affirming the inherent dignity of the person; and increasingly the embodied reality of our humanity; you can’t be an image and not be ‘physical’ — and that’s true. But it’s often the case that we bring ideas to the text of the Bible that are foreign to its thought world (and developed through the history of the church); rather than trying to get into the world, and once an idea gets a certain sort of momentum or meaning, it’s very hard to rein it back in. This isn’t to say there aren’t systematic theologians grappling with how the text of the Bible shapes a theological concept like the ‘imago dei’; but it does mean we need to be careful of the certain sort of freight tradition brings with it when we use terms, and I think it’s time to start resisting some of that freight to ensure we’re able to do the ad fontes work of building our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him.

Here’s my not so passive act of resistance; I’m happy to talk in english about being made in the ‘image of God’ (not the imago dei) simply because it is clear (more perspicuous — more Latin) and less pretentious (also more latin), but if we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of the meaning of these words I’m not going to indulge the Latin game. I’m going to be talking ‘selem elohim’ (sometimes ‘tselem’ because the Hebrew letter צ rolls that way). This reminds us of the foreignness of the world of the text to our world (in ways that help us not to forget that this is about more than language — and includes how we understand, for example, the place of the supernatural and the reality of a spiritual realm, which underpins the Genesis story but not many modern discussions around anthropology). It reminds us that we’re always translating. It also reminds us that there’s a gap between the institutional church as it unfolds through history for good and for ill, and the experience of Israel and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and its expectations and shapes the church and its theology (rather than our understanding of God ’emerging’ and ‘progressing’ beyond the ‘exact representation of God’s being’ walking the earth ala Hebrews 1).

Here’s a few things from Biblical scholarship (selem elohim) I reckon lots of modern systematic theology (imago dei stuff), especially at the ‘popular level’ misses.

  1. That the word ‘image’, when it’s not about our role as humans, is almost exclusively used for idol statues (one exception is the weird models of the tumours in the ark in 1 Samuel).
  2. That the word ‘selem’ is what’s called a ‘cognate’ the same consonants are found lumped together in the ancient near east (and vowels are a later edition to the written word); and it has the same meaning in those other nations which establishes a particular context for its use. I’ve written elsewhere about how a ritual for giving life to a ‘slm’ in nations outside Israel parallels in a fascinating way with Genesis 2.
  3. That to ‘be a thing’ (ontology) in the ancient world, including to be ‘created’ (Hebrew ‘bara’) in the Old Testament was to have a function; to be a selem elohim was to do something in particular; a vocation. If we’re not doing it, there’s a question as to how much our ‘material’ is actually being the thing we’re made to be. So there’s a question, from the Biblical narrative, as to how much the ‘imago dei’ is a permanent imprint rather than a purpose that we might systematically eradicate. The human equivalent to the ‘selem elohim’ outside of Israel was the king-as-god (who’d ultimately become part of the gods of a nation).
  4. There’s are many important distinctions between Israel’s ‘selem elohims’ and the nation’s. In the nations around Israel people make images and the gods decide to live in them if they tick the right boxes; in Israel’s story — God breathes life into living images. In the nations only the king is ‘godlike’, in Israel’s story all of us are rulers of God’s world.
  5. This understanding of what it means to be human has some pretty big implications for how we understand human failure — sin — as a failure to uphold God’s image and the pursuit of other ‘images’ that we make for ourselves. All theology is integrated.
  6. That ‘male and female’ carry out this role together means we’re not simply talking about the ‘imago dei’ being an inherent dignity to the individual thing, but something we carry out in relationship with each other (and the God whose image we bear). The plurals in Genesis 1:26-27 and their significance are debated beyond this (whether it’s the Trinity or God addressing the heavenly court room, for example), but what is reasonably clear (including from Genesis 2) is that a man alone isn’t fully fit for purpose. The Old Testament theologian John Walton makes the case that ‘being’ in the ancient world isn’t just about ‘function’ but ‘function in relationship with everything else’
  7. There’s a plot line that runs through the Bible where other ‘selems’ form the heart of the Israelite imagination of the good life, and where instead of being God’s images, Israel is conformed into the image of other gods. When Israel entered the nations they were to ‘destroy all their carved images and their cast idols’ (Numbers 33:52), which they do at least in their own land in 2 Kings when they get rid of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 11:18). Israel is constantly warned (in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets) to be God’s representatives, emerging through the smelting furnace of exodus, rather than to worship idols — the warning is they will become what they behold. Breathless and dead. Or the images of the breathing, life-giving, God.
  8. This line creates a better ‘Biblical Theology’ or narrative of fulfilment where Jesus, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1) and the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1) is the new pattern for our redeemed humanity that we’re transformed into by the gift of God’s spirit on top of the breath of life (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8). There’s admittedly a jump from Hebrew to Greek in the move from Old to New Testament, but the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) helps track that jump for us.

What it means to be made in the image of God is fascinating and important, and a vibrant part of the narrative of the Bible. It’d be a shame to remove it from that context and make it mean all sorts of other good things. The best systematic theology already deals with lots of the ideas above — and these ideas make the image of God a pretty big deal — but the best understanding of what the flourishing human life looks like; caught up with who we were made to be comes from going back to the text of the Bible and seeing what it really says and means, letting the Bible shape our world, rather than our world (and traditions) shape how we read the Bible (though this is more like a dialogue than a thing where we pit one against the other).

Join the resistance.